Great liturgical works from the Bach Choir

The Bach Choir conducted by Stephen Rowley

Frank Martin: Mass for Double Choir; Cherubini: Requiem Mass in C minor (1815)

St Mark’s Church, Basin Reserve

Sunday 29 August, 2pm

The Bach Choir has a distinguished history in Wellington since 1968, when it was founded by the gifted organist and musical scholar Anthony Jennings. Like all choirs, its fortunes have fluctuated: for the past two years it has regained its position, directed by Stephen Rowley; its recent achievements have included the B Minor Mass, Elijah, a concert of Handel and Purcell, and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

It was an adventurous concert. In Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir the two choirs of about 20 singers each, were placed diagonally, at right angles to each other, facing the conductor.

But ideally it needed more singers to give a more homogeneous sound to each section; among other things, there were too few altos and tenors to provide a uniform carpet of sound. Whether that realisation was what caused the evident shakiness at the beginning, and which recurred quite often, I cannot say; another blemish, quite early, was a worrying abrasive sound from one or more male singer, perhaps pushing too hard and high at fortissimo. However I was told that the dress rehearsal had gone very well.

One of the most rewarding books on music of the past few years is Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise. He remarks that Martin’s Mass has been “entrancing audiences with the archaic majesty of its language. Martin had a gift for immersing himself in styles of the past without seeming to imitate them.” That is nicely put. It is not to say the music is easy to sing or to ingest. The Kyrie begins with an indeterminate plainsong-like prelude that may not be hard to sing, but seems hard to place before the bolder polyphonic entry by the full choir. The sound might be Palestrina or Victoria.

The antiphonal possibilities of writing for two choirs were notable, using, say, sopranos on one side and basses on the other, or using entrances of various sections, aurally spaced, with striking effect. The contrasts between somber passages in the Gloria such as ‘Domine fili unigenite’ and the more excited ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ were examples of the composer’s detailed conception of the mass, which the choir dealt with scrupulously. Later, in the Credo, I enjoyed the onomatopoeic rising and falling scales that illustrated ‘Et ascendit in coelum’.

Stephen Rowley succeeded very well, given the music’s difficulties, in expressing the varied emotions and religious sentiments, the sense of the words and the contexts of Martin’s very meticulous, intricate scoring that so rewards careful study and rehearsal.

Martin’s view of religion was nowhere more clear than in his setting of the Sanctus: reverent and sober; compare with the almost ecstatic Bach, heard only a week earlier.

It was only when I looked into the music itself that I realized why Douglas Mews’s organ accompaniment was so tentative: it was simply to support the choir in an otherwise a cappella work.

I was looking forward even more to hearing live for the first time, Cherubini’s Requiem for mixed choir; he has always interested me for his place in music history, bridging the classic and romantic eras, and the Italian, the German and the French, as well as for the real strength of his own music.

He was commissioned to write this one to commemorate the execution of Louis XVI in 1793, following the defeat of Napoleon in June 1815, when Louis XVIII returned to Paris in July, evidently to Cherubini’s relief. Later, the forces of conservatism throughout society, unleashed in the backlash to the ‘radicalism’ of the Napoleonic era, brought back a ban on women singing the liturgy, and Cherubini wrote a second requiem in 1836 in preparation for his own funeral, for men’s voices only.

On the whole, this was easier for the choir to sing. Though the electronic organ hardly offered the supporting grandeur of a pipe organ, let alone the original orchestral accompaniment, Douglas Mews supplied valuable sonorities.

The Requiem is a remarkably strong work without being adorned with particularly memorable melodies. It has the character of the quintessential requiem, having absorbed that of Mozart and probably the liturgical music of Zelenka, Haydn and Salieri, but before Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and the requiem’s secularization by Berlioz and Verdi. It sounds rather like what Beethoven might have written if he had decided to (and he admired Cherubini, especially this work).

The dramatic character of the work, to be expected of a composer whose career till he was over 40 had been dedicated mainly to opera, though only occasionally with great success (particularly Lodoïska, Médée and Les deux journées), is part of its strength.

It pays close attention to the sense of the text, starting the Introit in a very subdued manner, allowing a subtle crescendo with the words’Exaudi orationem meam’ which the choir handled carefully. But soon, in the tutti sections, one rather longed for the richness and sustained body of voices in a bigger choir.

A more sanguine tone flourished in the Graduale however, but the ferocity of the start of the Dies Irae was a little subdued, though there was more venom towards the end in ‘Confutatis maledictus’. However, other parts of the Dies Irae where Cherubini typically overlaps phrases and divides words between sections of the choir for narrative purpose, and  through the more emphatic ‘Mors stupebit’, were effective. The change of style in the ‘Recordare’ hinted at Cherubini’s opera habits, to handle the tripping trochee meter of the liturgy in this section, and it might have benefited from greater rhythmic vitality.

The long Offertorium was kept alert with a quasi-marching, open-air, staccato tread, here conspicuously supported by the organ.  After the gentle Pie Jesu faded away, the final, momentarily forceful Agnus Dei and ‘Lux aeterna’ (left out of the programme), lent renewed vitality that ended with the prayer for eternal rest. Again, a smallish choir fell a shade short in creating a profound sense of peace through the music’s long-sustained harmonies.

Given that ideally both works would have gained so much from a rather larger body of singers, I was very glad to have heard these admirable live performances, a real credit to conductor Stephen Rowley.

One thought on “Great liturgical works from the Bach Choir

  1. Wilma says:

    WOW! Great ne#s;w8230&I wrote about this in my own blog after I read this, and linked to your site. Hope you don’t mind. I think I’ll go and pick up this issue. Thanks for the hot tip!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *