Copenhagen Royal Chapel Choir conducted by Ebbe Munk, with Hanne Kuhlmann, organ
Music by Niels la Cour, Palestrina, Patrick Gowers, Nielsen, Lauridsen
Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul, Hill Street
Thursday 30 April 2015, 7 pm
While it was always my intention to attend this concert, an email from a Dunedin friend that urged me to go said the following: “They filled the cathedral here, got a standing ovation and a rave review.” Indeed, Wellington Cathedral was very nearly full, also. I’m told this means around 600 people attended.
The opening item, Evening Prayer was by a contemporary Danish composer, Niels la Cour. It was sung unaccompanied and without scores, the 45 (approx.) members standing in the central aisle, facing in alternate directions. Most could not see the conductor, but nevertheless their timing was perfect, as was the balance. What struck me most was the lovely resonant sound, without any forcing. The men and boys (some of the latter quite small; 7 or 8 years old?) continued the music by humming as they walked to the steps of the sanctuary.
The conductor, Ebbe Munk, made short remarks about the works. I was told that they could not be heard clearly from further back in the cathedral.
The complexity of most of the remaining music on the programme demanded the choir use scores. Their singing of Palestrina’s Stabat Mater, Nunc dimittis and Viri Galilaei (a motet for Ascension Day in Rome) was indeed complex, but the polyphony was very apparent, especially in the first two works, in which the singers were split into two choirs. Though there was not the space for them to sing antiphonally, the character of the works was clear, not least through beautifully graded dynamics. Small groups from within the choir came over less well, some tones sounding brittle.
The choir reorganised for the Viri Galilaei, which provided some very complex and florid polyphony, which sounded splendid in this building. The singers really seemed to have the measure of these works. However, some tenors were too prominent.
The choristers had a rest while Hanne Kuhlmann played An Occasional Trumpet Voluntary by English composer Patrick Gowers, who died at the end of last year, and was noted as a composer for film and television. I found its repetitive rhythm rather tedious, but there were interesting tonal shifts, and a gradual crescendo by means of added stops led to an exciting finish, with the melody played on the pedals; my neighbour remarked ‘That should clean out the pipes!’
Nielsen’s Three Motets followed. Immediately, the choir had a rich sound, but again some forcing of tone by the tenors spoilt the mellow tone of the majority of the choir. Attacks were clean and clear. The counterpoint in ‘Dominus regit me’, the second of the three, was most effective; this movement featured gorgeous finishing cadences. The following ‘Benedictus’ was even more complex, with intriguing modulations. This was difficult music, making considerable demands on young voices. Yet there was plenty of volume when required.
After the interval came Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, in five sections. (Wikipedia doesn’t tell me, but I speculate that Lauridsen is of Danish ancestry). This was performed with organ, although much of the time it was not accompanying, but playing quiet interludes between the unaccompanied sung passages. The boys had changed from their sailor suits (à la Vienna Boys’ Choir) into white shirts and ties.
It was instantly striking how good is Lauridsen’s writing for choirs. Perhaps this was one reason why I did not now hear any stridency in the tenor voices. This was a stunning work.
In the ‘O nata lux’ movement there was the soaring quality of great beauty that one hopes to hear in a choir of boys. However, the strident tenors were back, on the high notes, and slightly flat in intonation. Here, the composer had written in some marvellous discords – most effective.
‘Veni, sancte Spiritus’ followed, and was sung loudly and joyfully, with conviction, whereas the final ‘Agnus Dei’ wasquiet and contemplative, unaccompanied apart from dreamy organ interludes that revealed Lauridsen’s inventive writing for the instrument. The movement provided a mood of joyful peace. The final ‘Alleluia’ of acclamation brought this splendid work to a close.
The final section of the programme was entitled Songs of Northern Light, and comprised four items, featuring variously words by Hans Christian Andersen and music by Carl Nielsen, and following the seasons of winter through to summer. These songs were sung
unaccompanied, and sung from memory.
The boys opened ‘The Bird in the Snow’, and were joined by tenors, then basses. Some of the members of the choir sang from behind the main body, from in front of the altar. Later, they slowly moved forward to join the rest. This was very effective – and reflective. It was followed by ‘Spring in Denmark’, a lively folk tune that was fast, with cross-rhythms. ‘Summer’ was chorale-like, and thus more harmonic in nature than most of the music we heard.
‘Bend your Head, oh Flower’ (which surely should be the ‘o’ of invocation, not the mild exclamation ‘oh’) revealed excellent sustained tone. An incantation from the back of the church was followed by humming. Then this group sang in counterpoint to the main choir.
Finally, ‘Homage to New Zealand; my prediction that it would be ‘Pokarekare ana’ proved correct. It was a superb Danish arrangement with beautiful harmony, and soprano, bass and tenor soloists. Following a standing ovation, the choir sang as an encore ‘Evensong – summer night’, which was a delightful and remarkable way to finish an evening of memorable choral singing.