Note Bene in adventurous and inspiring programme of recent choral music

‘May Magnificat’
Sarah MacDonald: Magnificat Tonus Peregrinus
John Tavener: Magnificat (Collegium Regale)
Arvo Pärt: Magnificat
Gerald Finzi: Magnificat
Doublas Mews (snr.): The May Magnificat
Janet Jennings: Magnificat
Charles Villiers Stanford: Magnificat in B flat for eight-part chorus

Nota Bene Chamber Choir, conducted by Peter de Blois, with soloists, and organ (Michael Fletcher)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill Street

Sunday, 6 May 2012, 2.30pm

It’s always a delight to hear a Nota Bene concert, and one of the reasons is the innovative programming.  The work by Douglas Mews I had heard before, by either the New Zealand Youth Choir or Voices New Zealand, and the Stanford I have on a record made by the Youth Choir in its early days.  Otherwise, the works on the programme were new to me, but all were inspiring and deserving of more hearings – which makes me think that this choir deserves its performances to be recorded for broadcast by Radio New Zealand Concert.

A striking opening was made by the choir processing in and placing themselves at the sides of the main body of the cathedral to sing the Sarah MacDonald work, Peter de Blois conducting, and singing the part of cantor in a firm, low tenor voice.  Although the sound was well-balanced despite the choir’s dispersed positions, some of the attacks were uneven, i.e. not always together.  Nevertheless, it was an attractive opening item.

Tavener writes very effectively for choirs, but this piece was something exceptional.  His writing used the style of Greek Orthodox chant, employing microtones.  The choir carried the piece off most effectively.  In places, it reminded me of Rachmaninov’s Vespers, which is based on Russian Orthodox chant (in turn based on Greek Orthodox music).  The singing included wordless vocalising in some of the vocal parts while other parts sang words.  There were some wonderfully delicate and ethereal sounds, and great attention to the words: this was sung in English, whereas the previous item was in Latin.

Pärt’s compositional style is quite distinctive and personal.   It was beautifully performed, and there was lovely tone, especially from soloists Christine Argyle, Inese Berzina and Emily Bruce (sopranos).  In some passages, the composer had written passages with the unusual juxtaposition of very low bass against very high soprano.   I did not find the work as interesting as the Tavener, but the sense of calm and timelessness typical of Pärt was certainly there.  The choir exhibited great control and smooth delivery.

Back to an English language Magnificat: that of Gerald Finzi, composed in 1989.  After three mainly quiet works, it was good to hear the robust fortes that this choir of 37 members can produce, not to mention the grand opening on the organ, and Michael Fletcher’s tasteful accompaniment throughout.  Again there was great attention to speech patterns in this thoroughly English setting.  It was very satisfying, and sounded as though it was fun to sing.  It was a convincing and successful performance.

After an interval long enough to enable some of the audience to enjoy the beautiful day outside, it was the turn of New Zealand composers to be heard.

First was Douglas Mews (senior), in his The May Magnificat, composed in 1977 (it was very good to have the years of publication in the programme.)  Here we had not the Biblical song of Mary, but a poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins, written in 1878.

Its short rhyming lines, some of them humorous (‘Is it only being brighter/ Than the most are must delight her?’) could have made for a rather staccato composition, but it was not.  The musical writing was very varied and engaging.  There were harmonic clashes, and quirky passages to match the words.  A soprano solo sung by Maaike Christie was challenging, but performed very well, while shorter solos from Patrick Geddes and Simon Christie were confidently sung.

There were moments of harshness and inaccuracy from the choir tenors, otherwise the timbre and tone were always good, and the unaccompanied performance precise and lively, with well enunciated words.

The short work by New Zealander Janet Jennings (written in 2008) was sung with organ, from the gallery at the back of the Cathedral.  The sound from here was quite lovely, even though my seat was only just forward of being below the gallery.  As the programme note described it, this was an exuberant setting in English, for women’s voices.  There was a notably unified sound.  Jennings’s was another apt setting, following the word patterns.  The organ part featured repetitive phrases, but it was varied by changed registrations and dynamics.

Stanford’s Magnificat is a major work; probably the longest in the concert, sung from the front of the church.  Its opening is akin to the opening of J.S.Bach’s Magnificat – this may have been a deliberate quotation on Stanford’s part.  There is a lot of complex inter-weaving for the eight parts, especially after “Fecit potentiam”, with wonderful points of rest here and there.

It is a work of great competence and inspiration, requiring considerable concentration and agility from the singers.  There is plentiful dynamic contrast, in sympathy with the words, and the piece is full of variety.  The writing of  “et exaltavit humiles; esurientes implevit bonis” is especially delicious. Elsewhere the music is lively, and always vital, and going somewhere.

Although Stanford composed in many genres, it is mainly his church music that is heard today.  This is a pity, for much more that he wrote is worth airing.

A feature of this performance was the rich sound from the men, especially the basses.  The tenors, again, had an unpleasant, nasal tone at times.  The women were universally euphonious and easy on the ear.

Peter de Blois is a very experienced musician, especially as an organist and singer, and his direction of the choir was sure.   The music was obviously well-rehearsed, and it was noteworthy how confident the singers were in the Tavener piece, with its microtones.  The audience was smaller that at the last concert of Nota Bene’s, before Christmas, but still respectable, given the amount of music on in Wellington currently – and the gorgeous day outside – and warmly appreciative of this diverse and interesting programme of twentieth and twenty-first century choral music.




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