Dixit Dominus (Handel), Choral items by Ralph Manuel, Katherine Dienes-Williams, Halsey Stevens, Morten Lauridsen, Samuel Barber, and arrangements by Aaron Copland, Haflidi Hallgrimsson and Moses Hogan
Kapiti Chamber Choir (conductor Guy Jansen) with Lesley Graham, (soprano), Janey McKenzie (soprano), Linden Loader (contralto), James Adams (tenor), Roger Wilson (bass), Handel Chamber Orchestra, Peter Averi (organ), Phillip O’Malley (piano)
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Saturday, 24 July, 4pm
A concert with two distinct parts: first, choral music from the 18th century with orchestra and soloists; after a long interval in which most enjoyable mulled wine and nibbles were served while a small string ensemble played charming music by Matthew Locke, a choral recital followed with a variety of pieces, some of them unaccompanied.
Some of the excitement, and certainly the precision, of the orchestral introduction to the Handel work was lost in the over-resonant Cathedral acoustic. However, the choir worked hard at overcoming this handicap.
The first number, for chorus initially, involved complex counterpoint. Attack was good, and the dynamics were handled well (no pun intended). Then the soloists entered. Due to the acoustics, the lower register of both Lesley Graham’s and Linden Loader’s florid opening solo passages were lost. James Adams came across very well, since the tessitura of his voice was higher.
The solo for contralto which followed showed Linden Loader in fine voice, and the next, for soprano, gave rein to Janey MacKenzie’s beautifully clear soprano. She was precise, yet had a lovely carrying tone.
The orchestra, brought together for last year’s Messiah and again for this occasion, was a little shaky at times, but on the whole did well. The continuo playing of Janet Holborow (cello) and Peter Averi (organ) was excellent, especially considering the great distance between the two players. Perhaps obtaining the use of a chamber organ would have been worthwhile.
There were sprightly rhythms in the numbers for chorus, and plenty of weight, too. ‘Dominus a dextris’ particularly, featured bouncy rhythms, while the following ‘Judicabit’ at the word ‘conquassabit’ the syllables (and therefore the notes) became detached, giving quite a curious effect. Perhaps it was word-painting, the words (in translation) being ‘…he shall fill the places with the dead bodies: and smite in sunder the heads over diverse countries.’ The more covered tone in this number was most appropriate to the words.
The men’s chorus was splendid in ‘De torrente’, their pianissimos truly hushed yet sonorous. The soprano soloists began with a only a few strings playing; this was most effective.
The extended fugal Gloria chorus at the end was executed confidently, although some singers are reluctant to favour the conductor with a glance. Both here and in the second half, some of the soloists joined the choir for the chorus.
Handel wrote the work while in Italy in 1707; there is no record of a first performance. Perhaps it was first performed in a large Italian church with similar acoustics to St Paul’s? For my taste, the Dixit Dominus was the wrong music for the building. Admittedly, it was about the right size, with a near-capacity audience.
After the interval, the choir began singing from the back of the church, unaccompanied and without their scores, Ralph Manuel’s Alleluia. It was by an American composer, as indeed were nearly all in this half of the concert. This piece used the resonance to great effect, the more so from being at the back. It had an exquisite pianissimo ending.
The performance reminded me of a number of concerts some years ago (by different groups) where the choristers were spread all round the Cathedral, and used different spaces for different items. Likewise, a few years ago there were lunchtime concerts incorporating piano and solo singers, who sang from the back, near the main door, with the audience seated around them. And the Orpheus Choir once performed from the gallery with the orchestra below them, rather than from the chancel steps.
Ave verum corpus by Katherine Dienes-Williams, former Organ Scholar at the Cathedral and now Organist and Master of Choristers at Guildford Cathedral in south England, featured beautiful floating lines, and was sung very well, with excellent tone and vowel-shaping.
Halsey Stevens wrote a setting of ‘Go, lovely rose!’ Its attractively pensive mood and dynamics were echoed in the next song, ‘O nata lux’ by Morten Lauridsen. This was quite a difficult piece, with clashes and discords, but was confidently sung in a gorgeous pianissimo, with a impressive decrescendo at the end. Following this item, Guy Jansen gave several brief spoken introductions to the pieces.
Another piece by Lauridsen was performed with piano. This seemed to make more obvious another feature of this building: sibilants have a way of sounding completely unconnected with the words they are part of.
While the women singing tenor did a great job, it does alter the sonorities to use women singing at the bottom of their register rather than men singing at or near the top of theirs, with their resultant brightness. However, when there is a shortage of the male variety, it is probably unavoidable. In the Handel, with the strings and organ accompanying, the difference in tone was not so noticeable.
Samuel Barber’s famous (hackneyed?) Adagio was arranged by him for eight-part choir, soloist and organ, as an Agnus dei. It was very effective in this setting. The choir was beautifully blended, especially at the ending, all singing with the same tone and dynamic.
A very rhythmic ‘Shall we gather at the river?’ with organ, arranged by Aaron Copland, followed. Then, for a complete change, the choir sang an Icelandic evening song, arranged by Haflidi Hallgrimsson. The pronunciation certainly sounded authentic, and added to the variety of language and music in the concert, not to mention variety of style. It included interesting harmonies. The effect was of stillness, which produced a dynamic of ppp without apparent difficulty.
Finally, Moses Hogan’s setting of the spiritual ‘My soul’s been anchored in the Lord’. It was performed with piano and organ, and sung with enthusiasm, the conductor achieving a variety of colourings of the voices, yet still obtaining precision singing. A good fortississimo ended the concert.