“Singet dem Herrn”: The Tudor Consort, directed by Michael Stewart
Music by J S Bach, Sven-David Sandström, William Byrd, Hugo Distler
Sacred Heart Cathedral
Saturday, 29 November 2014, 7.30pm
The programme revolved around three of Bach’s motets: Singet dem Herrn, Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden, and the incomparable Jesu, meine Freude. The other works were settings of the same or related texts by other composers, some with a conscious nod to Bach.
One notable characteristic of the superb Tudor Consort is the involvement of the singers in what they are presenting. This is shown by accuracy, attention to detail, fine vocal production, variation of expression through word stress and dynamics, and clarity of words. The singers’ faces reflect this involvement; singers in some choirs look as though mentally they are somewhere else. This must be the only choir with more men than women members (13 to12).
The opening motet by Bach, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (‘Sing to the Lord a new song’, not ‘Sing to the Lord no new song’, as the German title as printed had it) was lively, the performance emphasising the sprightly rhythm. The well-balanced choir gave punch to the joyful nature of the words, from Psalm 149.
For the Bach items Michael Stewart played the continuo on a small (or box) positive pipe organ, which many in the audience, including me, could hear but not see. This in no way dominated, but provided the continuo basis such as the composer would have employed. The intricacy of Bach’s counterpoint was all there, but was never an end in itself.
The choir’s tone was very fine, and enhanced by the venue. There was interesting dynamic variation, and only one aberration that I heard. However, it was disappointing to see so many of the choir, especially the men, stuck in their scores. Even though there may not have been the same need to watch the conductor, since he was limited by his playing in the conducting gestures he could give, looking up enhances a choir’s communication with its audience.
As a contrast to the bright mood of the motet’s opening Psalm, the following Chorale sung by half the choir, ‘Wie sich ein Vater erbarmet’ (As a father is merciful) was beautifully peaceful and smooth. Choir 2’s aria was a plea to God for his care, interspersed with the Chorale. Finally, all sang words from Psalm 150.
After the motet, Michael Stewart addressed some remarks to the audience concerning the work, and the work to follow, by contemporary Swedish composer Sven-David Sandström. It was based on words from Psalm 117: Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden (Praise the Lord, all nations). The brief programme
note informed us that the composer ‘wrote his own set of six motets using the same texts as J S Bach. Indeed, much of his choral music since the 1990s has been written “in the footsteps of Bach”’.
His unaccompanied work proved to be complex, with many cross-rhythms. However, it was very much choral music, with effective use of the words, and giving plenty of opportunity for the choir to exhibit its splendid tone colours. As the interlocking interjections sped up, words were no longer distinguishable. A passage of smooth harmony, followed, a passage of great beauty, its multiple parts shifting the harmony in unexpected ways to wonderful effect. The concluding ‘Alleluia’ began sounding really angelic, but became quite impassioned.
The Bach version of the same motet saw the choir regroup, and Michael Stewart return to the organ. Again the complexity of the writing did not obscure the beauty of the music nor of the words, which were delivered in impeccable German.
Praise our Lord all ye Gentiles by William Byrd brought forth a lovely sound from the choir, featuring the altos and the men only. This 6-part motet was unaccompanied, and notable for much decoration of the words, and long melismatic passages. The Renaissance idiom and style was a refreshing change from the complexities of the Baroque.
Hugo Distler’s Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (again put in the negative in the heading!) was not written to the same words as the opening Bach work, despite the opening lines; in this case the words are from Psalm 98. Distler, too, was a follower of Bach and the Baroque style. Like the Byrd piece, this was sung unaccompanied.
The work opened with a strong sound from the men. Despite being neo-baroque, there were harmonies that would have astonished Bach – some were stark and angular. However, the cadences were almost uniformly delicious, and the work was of considerable rhythmic variety. As with the Sandström work, this was unfamiliar music that was well worth hearing.
To end the programme, the Tudor Consort performed Bach’s lengthy motet Jesu, Meine Freude. Its eleven movements alternate quotations from Romans, chapter 8, with chorales meditating upon the Biblical words, written by Johann Frank in 1650. To my mind this is one of the most beautiful and most satisfying choral works. It is wonderfully varied in its expression of words, and of faith. It is one of the supreme works of Bach, performed all too seldom – but making such an occasion as this to be all the
The choir, accompanied on the organ, sang the opening chorale with commitment and expressiveness. The following chorus, the first of the quotations from Romans, was sung with subtlety and great attention to expression and varying the dynamics. The chorale commenting on the Biblical passage provides a feast of word-painting, with its talk of storms, of Satan, and particularly of thunder and lightning.
The next passage from Romans was sung by trebles only, the writing being utterly delicate. Despite a few wonky notes, the effect was pleasing indeed. Its chorale speaks of defiance to death and the strength of God. Its positive mood was rendered by the harmony, sequences and cadences.
The passage about being of the spirit rather than the flesh began with men only, and was full of complex counterpoint. The florid passages were certainly not easy to sing, and a few notes came out flat. After the next chorale, the following chorus’s opening (‘However, if Christ is in you…’) is tranquil and peaceful, but gives way to counterpoint of great complexity for all parts, only for all to come together for a glorious ending.
The chorale ‘Gute Nacht’ is utterly magical, moving from simple soprano and alto parts to contrasting ornate parts for the men. The treble parts come into their own complexity briefly, before the chorale melody weaves between all parts. A spirit of contemplation is paramount in this movement.
A jubilant chorus celebrating the resurrection of Christ and of believers leads to the final chorale, which restates the motet’s opening chorale melody and harmony for its contemplation that ends with Jesu, meine Freude (‘Jesus, my joy’). Strongly sung, this revealed again excellent balance and mellifluous tone.
The audience enthusiasm proved, if proof were necessary, that all had enjoyed an evening of rewarding and uplifting music-making. I felt honoured to have heard this marvellous music. It was a musical and spiritual treat.