Pieces of eight from Nota Bene

Pieces of Eight: Works in eight parts

de Monte: Super lumina Babylonis / Peter Philips: Ecce tu pulchra es
Byrd: Quomodo cantabinus / Purcell: Prelude (organ)  Hear my prayer
Lotti: Crucifixus / Bach:  Alle Menschen müssen sterben, BWV 117 (organ)
Singet dem Herrn, BWV 225
Brahms: Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen (organ) / Unsere Väter hofften auf dich  Wenn ein starker Gewappneter / Wo ist ein so herrlich Volk
Greene: Voluntary in E flat (organ) / Pearsall: Lay a garland /Great God of love
Holst: Ave Maria / Mendelssohn: No.4 from Lieder ohne Worte Op.19 (organ)
Kyrie, Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe, Heilig, heilig

Nota Bene Chamber Choir, conducted by Peter Walls, with soloists, and Erin Helyard (chamber organ)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill Street

Saturday, 15 June 2013, 7.30pm

Once again, a concert of innovative programming from Nota Bene.  This time, it was made up of pieces written for eight parts, mainly in the form of two choirs.  The result was a performance full of animation, with interesting and appealing music well sung, providing enjoyment for the audience, which pretty well filled the venue.  The dates of the compositions ranged from sixteenth century through to twentieth century.

All the words were printed in the programme; in lieu of programme notes, Peter Walls gave short, knowledgeable spoken introductions to each bracket of music.

Philippe de Monte was a Belgian working in Prague; his setting of ‘By the waters of Babylon’ was unccompanied, and sung antiphonally.  Immediately I was struck by the rich bass lines; the whole piece was delicious, especially the ending.

The Philips item had one choir echoing the other.  The variety of dynamics from the choir was excellent, as was the unanimity of tone, i.e. blend.

Byrd, as a Catholic composer in what was, in the later sixteenth century, Protestant England, gave added meaning (and danger?) to the words ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’  Heard in Wellington’s Catholic cathedral, these words not only had point, but the acoustics made all the music sound good.

Here came the first of the interspersed items played on chamber organ by Erin Helyard: a Purcell prelude probably played at the funeral of King Charles II.  It was a piece of varied tempi, making an apt introduction to the Purcell anthem, ‘Hear my prayer’.  All the words, here and elsewhere, were very clear, and the dynamics, rising to double forte, were admirable, although the opening of the piece, accompanied by the organ, was slightly hesitant.

Lotti used discord most effectively in the single choir (not polychoral) ‘Crucifixus’.  The sound veritably shimmered, especially where sopranos were at the top of their range, and basses at the lowest part of theirs.  I could not help noticing the sparsity of  eyes upon the conductor – no doubt a reflection of the complicated music and the full and varied programme – but what a contrast to The Big Sing the other night, where the young people had memorised all their music!  Nota Bene is a relatively youthful choir, but that would be too tall an order!

A short organ piece by Bach followed.  I would have liked a little more lift between repeated notes and chords in this, and more phrasing of the lines of the chorale melody (i.e. hymn-tune).

Bach’s motet ‘Singet dem Herrn’ is a wonderful example of baroque-era choral music.  It was accompanied on organ; the choir and organ were not always absolutely together, and the blend was not so good here, but the complex and brilliant texture nevertheless came over well.  The chorale and aria middle section of the motet was unaccompanied, and the fine voices of the soloists (Amanda Barclay, Katherine Hodge, Phillip Collins and Matthew Landreth) were projected splendidly, as were the smooth, beautiful sounds from the choir.

After the interval, a short Brahms piece from the organ.  This, and the later Mendelssohn one, would have sounded better from the big organ, with more tone colours available for the Romantic era music.

The three Brahms choral pieces that make up Fest- und Gedenksprüche I had not heard before.  All three were sung antiphonally, and featured excellent German pronunciation.  I found the second, ‘Wenn ein starker Gewappneter’ particularly effective, with its interweaving parts and long sustained lines.  In this acoustic, the latter were more satisfactory than rapid runs.

The third of the trio, ‘Wo ist ein so herrlich Volk’ contained lovely suspensions.  We were treated to a pure sound from the choir when required, and plenty of fortissimo passages, along with confident treatment of changes in tonality.  I found this one of the most satisfying items of the evening.  Both Brahms and Mendelssohn (heard later) were admirers of, and influenced by, J.S. Bach; this made a link through the programme.

An English bracket followed, starting with a slow organ voluntary of Maurice Greene’s.  Next came the madrigal by Robert Pearsall ‘Lay a garland’ (a favourite of Peter Godfrey’s), sung in single choir, with beautiful tone, except for some straining in the tenors, but making the most of the exquisite writing; a second Pearsall madrigal followed after the Holst.

Holst’s ‘Ave Maria’ was sung by women only.  The ‘Benedicta’ section was sung strongly the first time, then in the repeat, pulled back to give an ethereal effect.  I did feel that Holst went on a bit too long with too much repetition, thus running out of steam and losing effect.

Mendelssohn completed the programme.  I thought playing one of the Songs without Words on the organ was most unfortunate.  The music needed the clarity of the piano.  Perhaps adding a 2-foot stop would have helped – it sounded heavy, and not in the least like a song.  I have attended other concerts with interspersed appropriate short organ pieces that have worked better than was the case on this occasion.

The composer’s German Liturgy is familiar to me from the National Youth Choir’s frequent singing of it.  A quartet of solos in the middle (Amanda Barclay, Maaike Christie-Beekman, Phillip Collins and Simon Christie) was sung gratifyingly well, as indeed were all three movements.  ‘Heilig, heilig’ succumbed to a false start, but proved to be performed in a very positive, affirming style with exemplary tone, making a good way to end the concert.

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