Bold as Brass: works for choir and brass
Dufay, Croce, Gabrieli, Bruckner, Brahms, David Hamilton
Nota Bene, conducted by Peter Walls, with Ingrid Bauer (harp), Matthew Allison, David Bremner and Tim Sutton (trombones), Carsten Williams and Heather Thompson (horns), Douglas Mews (organ and piano)
Sacred Heart Cathedral
Saturday, 29 March 2014, 7.30pm
Nota Bene chamber choir appeared to be a little larger than it has sometimes been, but not all singers sang in all items. Once again it grabbed the attention and held it, with a varied programme incorporating diverse instruments as well as the voices, sometimes women’s only.
Again, Peter Walls was guest conductor, and his vigorous yet sensitive conducting bore out a comment in his biography in the printed programme, from Classics Today: “Peter Walls understands the overall period style and he obviously cares a lot about ensemble balance and uniformity of tone and colour.” He spoke before each sung bracket, giving a little information about the composers and pieces.
Despite beginning with the fifteenth century and ending with the twentieth, the choir was always in good voice, and adapted tonal production and word emphases to the items appropriately. No English language appeared this time; the David Hamilton piece titled ‘The Moon is Silently Singing’ is a setting of a Spanish poem, despite the English title.
The opening ‘Gloria ad modum tubae’ by Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474) began with a cantor, and the choir women arranged round the perimeter of the church. They then processed very slowly forward, while the trombones lived up to the title, intoning single fifths on their instruments. The intertwining voices were most effective, sounding across the building’s fine acoustic. When the singers came together at the front, the blend was magical.
Giovanni Croce was a contemporary of Gabrieli, and like him was a composer at St. Mark’s in Venice in the latter half of the sixteenth century and into the seventeenth. The former’s setting of Psalm 81 was a complex piece of polyphony, sung joyfully, with tone and words well projected. Gabrieli is well-known for his wonderful settings for choir (and brass) placed in different parts of the vast Venice church. Here, we had the trombones in the left ambulatory of the church, and also soloist Peter de Blois
(tenor), in ‘O magnum mysterium’. The performance was very fine, with all the contrapuntal lines beautifully drawn. However, I felt that the sound from the soloist would have been better if he had been standing further forward into the church, away from the brass, and not in the ambulatory.
A drastic change followed, to the nineteenth century; the women sang Brahms’s Four Songs Op.17. With themes of lost love and the (male) lover’s death, they were sure ground for romantic settings. What was unusual was their accompaniment by horn and harp. The first song’s words invoked the harp; the effect of the two instruments, superbly played, plus the voices, was gorgeous. The second song was a German translation of Shakespeare’s well-known ‘Come away, come away death’ (more familiar in settings by Gerald Finzi, Roger Quilter and others). There was great attention to dynamics, and wondrously unanimous phrasing and pronunciation. The last song, ‘Gesang aus Fingal’ displayed vitality and uniformity of tone. Its folksy rhythm was well maintained.
‘Christus Factus Est’ is a Biblical setting by Bruckner.
Splendid tone and beautifully managed chromatic passages featured, although there was a little harshness from the tenors on some high notes. A secular song by the same composer, more familiar in Schumann’s setting, ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ was, like the previous one, unaccompanied.
‘Ecce Sacerdos’ was a complete contrast, employing organ and brass in its grand statements. It was sung with contrasting subtlety and the grandeur of great fortissimo sounds – and a few flaws in phrasing, that hardly detracted from the splendour.
We were in for a surprise after the interval.
Following unaccompanied settings by Bruckner: ‘Afferentur regi’ and ‘Os justi’ (Psalm 37), the latter a most exciting and exultant composition full of imaginative writing and treated with loving care by the choir, the familiar ‘Locus iste’ was not sung, but played by the trombones and one horn! At first I wanted the choir, and thought it sounded a little grotesque, but by the end I was converted. The trombones followed with the same composer’s Aequalis I & II, striking and effective pieces.
We returned to Brahms for Four Quartets Op.92, sung with piano. The first, ‘O schöne Nacht’ was very romantic, even sentimental. The words translated as ‘the moon gleams magically’ evoked gorgeous setting by the composer – and linked with the Hamilton work at the end of the programme.
More complex part-writing featured in ‘Spätherbst’; Brahms’s chromatic writing in ‘Abendlied’ didn’t make it easy for the singers – the pitch wandered a little at the opening. This song was very affecting in its understated romantic fervour. After ‘Warum’ we came to David Hamilton’s ‘The Moon is Silently Singing’. The two horns – one in the gallery and one in front of the choir gave ethereal echo effects, and were superbly played. The double choir’s performance incorporated whispering as well as singing – this is a complex and difficult work. It would have been interesting to have had the poet (Miguel de Unamuno, 18864-1936) acknowledged.
By way of critical remarks, I could point out that it is not difficult to find out the dates of composers’ births and deaths; printing them after their names helps the audience to orient themselves to the music. Another matter was proof-reading; while most of the printed programme, consisting mainly of translations, was beyond complaint, the translation of the Dufay ‘Gloria’ appeared to have been typed by someone who did not know the archaic words ‘thee’ and ‘thy’; certainly they did not appear correctly, nor did some other words here and elsewhere.
It was a pity that brackets and a footnote for the first line of Shakespeare’s ‘Come away…’ were reproduced from the internet entry.
This was a memorable evening’s music-making. There was variety, heart-stopping drama and emotion, and commitment and excellence from the performers.