Saint-Saëns, Psalms and Spirituals from the Festival Singers

Saint-Saëns – Mass Op.4 / Works by Felix Mendelssohn, John Rutter, René Clausen, Zsolt Gárdonyi, Moses Hogan and William Henry Smith

Clarissa Dunn (soprano), Bianca Andrew (mezzo-soprano),  Chris Anderson (tenor),  Kieran Rayner (baritone)

Jonathan Berkahn (organ, piano), Paul Rosoman (organ)

Festival Singers

Rosemary Russell (director)

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul

Hill St., Wellington

Saturday 29th May 2010

“Camille Saint-Saëns was wracked with pains,

When people addressed him as “Saint-Saynes”;

He held the human race to blame,

because it could not pronounce his name.”

Readers who remember Ogden Nash’s verses will sympathise further with Camille Saint-Saëns in his predicament at being known as a composer primarily for his zoological fantasy “Carnival of the Animals”, though his “Organ” Symphony and several of his concertos for violin, for ‘cello and for piano, have always figured in concert programmes. All gratitude, therefore, to the Festival Singers here in Wellington, for presenting in concert a relative rarity, the composer’s Mass Op.4, written in 1856 when Saint-Saëns was twenty-one, and working as an organist at the church of St-Merry, in Paris. Originally written with orchestral accompaniment, along with the two organs (grand and petite), the work was performed by the Festival Singers in the composer’s later arrangement made without the orchestra. Always his own man in whatever he did, Saint-Saëns largely ignored the more “operatic” vocal style of the liturgical music of his contemporaries, instead choosing to emulate various “historical” precedents, such as the exchanges between the two organs which open the work, and the alternating of organ and choir immediately following, called “alternatum”. Other influences on the work are those of plainchant, of renaissance-like polyphony, of Bachian counterpoint and the sense of drama expressed in the masses of Haydn and Mozart.

At first, the opening alternating statements by the two organs were puzzling – though nicely antiphonal and varied, there was little sense of forward movement or projected focus, which in itself created a kind of tension. The entry of the voices for the Kyrie then seemed to uncover a hitherto concealed pathway along which the music could then move. Whether the youthful composer had this almost “cut adrift” effect in mind at the outset which could then be energised in a specific direction, I’m not sure; but a sense of expectation-cum-bemusement was engendered by the organ dialogues at the beginning, making the entry of the choir a moment of real frisson, of sudden enlightenment and compelling forward motion.

As with the performance of the Dvorak Mass last year, I thought the Singers revelled in presenting to its audience music that ought to be far better known. The work of both soloists and chorus constantly delighted the ear, the full choir able to set the voluminous spaces of the cathedral resounding, even if some of the singing of the sections, through dint of lack of numbers, couldn’t manage the evenness of tone required by some of the exchanges (the women outnumbering the men, and their lines consequently rather more consistently full-toned and secure). Each of the four soloists, soprano Clarissa Dunn, mezzo Bianca Andrew, tenor Chris Anderson and baritone Kieran Rayner, gave particular pleasure with their work, and blended their voices beautifully throughout. Both Jonathan Berkahn and Paul Rosoman contributed stirring organ solos, the latter setting the spaces thundering and shaking with the larger instrument’s grandeur of utterance in places, and setting off the delicacy and poise of Jonathan Berkahn’s playing of the “petite orgue”, accompanying the choir throughout most of the work. Rosemary Russell’s direction seemed to me to be exactly what the music asked for at all times – one could imagine a more tautly-conceived introduction, perhaps, but such a course may well have gained little for the work and lost that air of expectancy which both the silences and the natural flow of the organ-playing built up.

After the interval came the “Psalms and Spirituals”, a sequence whose success surprised and delighted me, as I thought it worked well. The Psalms were begun with Mendelssohn’s energetic and festive “Jauchzet dem Herrn”, the unccompanied choir confident, secure and accurate, and the solo soprano voices from the body of the choir spectacularly good. Somewhat less compelling as a work and as a performance was John Rutter’s “I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes”, the ethereal tones of the “petite orgue” blending sweetly with the small but properly plaintive tenor voices, the full choral passages confident, if occasionally over-balanced on the women’s side. I thought the fragmented vocal lines towards the end (broken up by frequent organ passages, albeit beautifully played) made it difficult for the choir to maintain its tones securely, though forgiveness was forthcoming at the very end with the delicately-floated “Amens”.

American composer René Clausen’s “All That Hath Life And Breath Praise Ye the Lord” featured lively unaccompanied singing, with a striking “many tongues” effect towards the end of the piece, not completely accurate in pitch, but with a real sense of bubbling excitement in the textures – again some sonorous, well-focused work came from a solo soprano choral voice, while the rest of the sopranos brought off a lovely ostinato-accompanied reprise of the main theme midway through. I liked the second John Rutter Psalm “The Lord Is My Shepherd” better than I did the first one, the singing well-rounded (tenors keeping their line despite a touch of strain) and a delicious organ solo sounding as though poet Christopher Smart’s cat Jeffrey had wandered into the work from one of Benjamin Britten’s pieces. Another Rutter Psalm-setting “O Clap Your hands” evoked a dance-spirit with occasional bell-like descending figures, though I thought either the composer or the performers could have given the work’s last couple of pages a little bit more energy and “ring”.

Saint-Saens’s music made a reappearance with his “Ave Maria” sung as a duet by Clarissa Dunn and Bianca Andrew, a welcome change from the over-performed Gounod setting, and one which again enlarged one’s appreciation of the composer and his work. Accompanied by some sensitive piano-playing from Jonathan Berkhan, the singers captured the joyous radiance of the first part of the prayer, and the clouded-over, minor-key supplication of the second.  Bianca Andrew took a strong and heartfelt canonic lead through the latter episode, before easing gratefully back into major-key mode together with her equally melifluous-voiced soprano partner for a beautifully-floated “Amen”. The composer might or might not have approved of his music being juxtaposed with such a bluesy number as “Somebody’s knockin'”, the first of the Spirituals, and probably the funkiest of the selection, the piano accompaniment being particularly moved by the spirit in Jonathan Berkahn’s capable hands. I liked the variation of atmosphere from piece to piece underlined by the different accompaniments, a capella alternating with piano, and a primitive-sounding African-style beat for “Keep Your Lamps!”, which conductor and percussionist launched successfully after a “ready-steady” first attempt. The groundswell of feeling engendered by the final item “There is a Balm in Gilead” satisfied on all counts, appropriately featuring a sweetly dignified soprano voice from the choir and a gently-rocking piano accompaniment – a warm and engaging way to end an enjoyable concert.

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