Byrd: Mass for Four Voices
Choral music by Katherine Dienes, Felicity Williams, David Hamilton, Rossini, and folk songs
Piano music by Janáĉek and Lilburn
Violin music by Tchaikovsky
Kapiti Chamber conducted by Stuart Douglas, with Carolyn Rait (piano) and Ken Dougall (organ); solos by Helen Ridley (piano) and Richard Taylor (violin, with accompanist Judith Wheeler)
St. Paul’s Church Waikanae
Sunday, 8 July 2012, 2.30pm
The ‘Full Circle’ of the title of the concert was due to the fact that this was the 20th anniversary concert of the choir, and the programme being performed was virtually the same as that performed at the initial concert.
The choir was founded by Professor Peter Godfrey at the request of two local singers: Paddy Nash and Pat Barry. Peter Godfrey was present at the concert, as was his successor, Dr Guy Jansen. Stuart Douglas took over last year.
The printed programme provided a list of works sung in each year of the 20. I appreciated having all the words and translations printed.
The singing of the Byrd Mass was very fine – full of beautiful chording and purity of tone, especially from the sopranos. The quiet opening set the scene for contemplation and plangent melismas (though these were not quite so good as the chords).
The opening was a little uneven, as were the beginnings of some of the other movements. Latin pronunciation was excellent, and beautiful vowels were to be heard throughout the work.
This was unaccompanied singing of a high standard. Dynamics provided variety of expression; for example in the Gloria, at ‘propter magnam gloriam tuam’(‘according to your great glory’).
The decision to modernise the translated words in the printed programme rather than use the English words of the period, or of the Anglican Prayer Book of 1662, led to a few infelicities: despite “You alone are holy, You alone are the Lord”, we had “You who removes the sins of the world…You who sits on the right hand…”
In the ‘Domine Deus’ section of the Gloria the basses were particularly admirable, while at the ‘Qui tollis’, the parts were particularly well balanced, and all produced a lovely sound; this continued in the ‘Quoniam’.
The Mass was divided, so that the Kyrie, Gloria and Credo were heard together, then after the interval, the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei. This was a great idea; a sung mass is interspersed throughout a church service, not all sung at once. The attention is more focused by interspersing it in this way.
Between the longer movements, Stuart Douglas used his pitch pipe; in this first part of the mass the intonation held up well.
The ‘Et incarnatus est’ in the Credo had a limpid quality. I thought that if I shut my eyes, I could imagine I was listening to an all-male choir in the Chapel Royal in London, for which the work was composed. (Ladies, this is meant as a compliment!)
The crescendo at ‘Et resurrexit’ was splendidly achieved without loss of tone. The counterpoint at ‘Et iterum venturus est’ was a fit vehicle for the words ‘And he will come again with glory…’; sublime in both its conception and rendition. From here to the end of the Credo, there was tricky music to sing, but this choir knew its stuff very well.
‘In the mists’ by Janáçek, a work in four movements, was played by Helen Ridley, who had played at that concert 20 years earlier. This was difficult music, and as described in the short programme note, ‘enigmatic and often melancholy’. The pianist in her introduction described the music as expressing the composer’s mental state, his isolation as a musician, seeing what he saw as a nationalist, as tragedy occurring in his country, and to him personally. She said that he employed folk music, and the inflections of speech, and this was obvious in the andante first movement, which built from a quiet opening to turbulent passages followed by soft cascades.
The second movement, molto adagio also contained folksy sounds, but was more contemplative to begin with, followed by stormy passages that nevertheless used the same theme. A quiet ending finished the movement. The third, andantino was again folksy, but also one could imagine a conversation going on between higher and deeper voices. The tonality was modal
The final presto was not very fast, and there were many hesitant figures (and in earlier movements also). Faster passages followed, with numerous different figures, having a dance-like feeling. This was very skilled playing of a seldom-heard work.
The choir turned now to unaccompanied New Zealand music, the first being ‘Jesu, dulcis memoria’ by Katherine Dienes. I remember singing this in a church service at the Cathedral in Dunedin, as part of an early New Zealand Choral Federation conference. It is a very fine piece. The only difficulty here was that because women tenors are used as well as men, the tone is changed, since they are singing at the bottom of their voices, whereas the male tenors are often at the top of theirs, so the effect is quite different. It was more noticeable in this work than in some of the others.
Next came ‘Exultate jubilate’ by Felicity Williams, accompanied on the piano by Carolyn Rait. The Christchurch composer has created a piece that is truly joyous, and also thoughtful.
Lastly, David Hamilton’s ‘Nunc dimittis’, a very effective piece with lovely harmonies and a quiet ending.
After the interval, we had the remaining movements of the Byrd Mass. The opening tonality of the ‘Sanctus’ seemed a little difficult to begin on, and was not quite together. However, what followed demonstrated wonderful purity in the upper parts.
The start of the Benedictus also seemed also to provide some difficulty, though the pitch at the end was fine. However, then the Agnus Dei started slightly flat. The work lost a bit of life at the end, but I think Byrd would have been impressed overall, as was the audience.
Richard Taylor, violin, played with Judith Wheeler two parts of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir d’un lieu cher, Op.42 ( ‘Mélodie’ and ‘Scherzo’), the composer remembering his stay at his benefactor’s Ukrainian estate. This young violinist (12 years of age??) performed with confidence, excellent control, a warm tone, and technical mastery. Having long fingers is obviously an advantage. He used dynamics well in the well-known and very lyrical first part, and performed demanding runs and double-stopping in the second. This was quite a tour de force for a young fellow, and, along with Judith Wheeler’s exemplary playing, received a great reception.
Three sacred works of Rossini were sung by the choir with the singers mixed up in their positions, rather than being together according to voice part. I thought this improved the blend of the choir. ‘O salutaris hostia’ featured splendid dynamic variation, while ‘Ave Maria’ (again the start not quite together), and ‘Salve O Vergine Maria’ were well-performed, with organ. The last (in Italian, not Latin) was more rollicking in nature and romantic in style.
Helen Ridley returned to play Sonatina no.2 by Douglas Lilburn.
This piece, which the composer had dedicated to his colleague and supreme interpreter, Margaret Neilsen, was also given a spoken introduction. There was considerable use of the sustaining pedal, which had been clearly prescribed by Lilburn.
The piece had very spare scoring, and featured typical Lilburn rhythms. The atmosphere of the bush was created with bird song. The three short movements were mainly slow and dreamy, the ending fading away. They were played with empathy and clarity.
To end this rather long concert the choir sang in English three unaccompanied folk song arrangements: ‘Early one morning’, ‘O come you from Newcastle’ (both English) and the American ‘Shenandoah’. While they were all fine, the last was the most telling, with appealing harmonies and a real feeling of longing conveyed in the voices. The last verse was split into many parts; a most effective arrangement and a lovely ending to the concert.
The choir, through a wide repertoire, proved itself most versatile and capable.