The Bach Choir of Wellington presents:
A BABE IS BORN
and Christmas music by VICTORIA, DOUGLAS K.MEWS, MESSIAEN,
POULENC, RICHARD RODNEY BENNETT, WHITBOURN and DAQUIN
The Bach Choir of Wellington
Peter de Blois (conductor)
Douglas Mews (organ)
Saturday 28th November, 2015
Into the beautifully-appointed spaces of St.Peter-on-Willis’s Church came the Bach Choir, with conductor Peter de Blois and organist Douglas Mews, to perform an inventive and intriguing selection of Christmas music.
Audience participation was definitely on the agenda – at the top of the list of items, and styled as an “audience carol” no less, was “O come, all ye faithful” – which contributed greatly to the concert’s overall ambience, a kind of “all-in this together” feeling, central to the festive season, of course.
Conductor Peter de Blois made an excellent job of facilitating this “coming together” of performers and audience, with an easeful, undemonstrative manner which encouraged rather than bullied people into giving the singing their best shot.
The whole concert was, in fact, rather like a kind of family gathering, most evident during the interval and at the conclusion, with plenty of “mingling” of audience and choir members, as, indeed was the case with the music throughout the afternoon!
Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) left his native Spain at the age of seventeen to study with Palestrina in Italy, remaining there for twenty years while he honed his compositional craft. When only twenty-four he published his first musical anthology, including the motet O Magnum Mysterium, a work which has come to be a favorite of choirs since the revival of interest in Victoria’s music in the twentieth century. Though originally composed for the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ its text unashamedly refers to Christmas, and accordingly suits the last part of the year.
This was a lovely performance, sensitive and ethereal-sounding throughout the opening, the singers judiciously varying the tones and dynamics, delivering a sensitive, contrastingly withdrawn “Beatus Virgo” and thrilling surges of energy for the Alleluias at the work’s end, allowing the music a fantasia-like effect to finish.
A group of Four European carols followed, arranged by Douglas Mews père et fils, lovely realizations of two Italian, one French and one German carol, each of the first three having catchy rhythms somewhat removed from the more “stolid” and four-square aspect of carols I had been brought up with. Having said that, I must admit that the “audience carol” which followed this set was “Angels from the Realms of Glory’ which had us all roller-coastering the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” refrains at the end with great exuberance.
Douglas Mews fils then played Olivier Messiaen’s La Vierge et l’Enfant (The Virgin and Child) from the composer’s La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord) group of organ pieces, an evocative meditation which I found extraordinary in its mystery and wonderment, the composer exploring a plethora of emotions and reactions to the Christ Child’s birth, including the deepest of meditative explorations as well as hope and joy at the “glad tidings” – Douglas Mews’ playing seemed all-enveloping in its trance-like suggestiveness, making me want to listen to the whole set of nine pieces.
Another setting of O Magnum Mysterium came from Francis Poulenc, one of a group of settings, Quatre motets pour le temps le Noël. In this work, we heard beautifully hushed tones at the outset from which came beams of light radiating from the sopranos – the singers did well to “pitch” these exposed entries, which, though repeated later in the piece had more support from the rest of the choir, everything sensitively done.
Our sense of “the ordinary and the fabulous” was nicely blurred by the juxtapositioning of audience carols with the rest of the programme, our rendition of “Away in a Manger” followed as it was by five lovely settings by Richard Rodney Bennett of Christmas texts from earlier times. Interesting to compare two of these (There is no rose, and That Younge Child) with the settings by Britten in his “A Ceremony of Carols” – both of Bennett’s were, I thought more severe and austere in effect than the older composer’s treatment of the texts. The others were slightly more “user-friendly”, especially the lively Susanni, which concluded the set, alternating single-voice and harmonized lines most adroitly and enjoyably. Earlier, the gently canonic Sweet was the song charmed us in a different way, with its lovely “lulla lulla lullaby “adjuncts to each verse.
After we in the audience were again let off the leash via a full-throated “Ding Dong Merrily on High” we were then treated to a short Christmas Cantata by Douglas Mews père, three very different texts most imaginatively treated and, here, securely performed – from the the first, “After the Annuniciation” by Elizabeth Jennings, exploring aspects of the God/Man relationship embodied in the VIrgin Mary’s begetting of Jesus, through a “dance-carol” treatment of an early Spanish text “St Joseph and God’s Mother” (winningly sung and played, here), and finishing on a more serious note with “A Babe is Born”, beginning with what seems like a conventional setting of a 15th Century text, but then interpolating Latin chants and the occasional spoken phrases from individual voices in the choir.
The concert’s second half was take up with a curious work, one by British composer James Whitbourn, a setting of a Latin mass employing carol melodies from various parts of Europe. I must confess to enjoying parts of it more than I did others, finding it hard to rid myself in places of the Christmas associations of the melodies, as if my sensibilities were saying, for whatever reason, that the amalgamation of the Mass text with carol melodies seemed almost improper. (I’m sure I would have been in a minority in this, but there you go!)
There were, by way of confounding my instincts, some gorgeous sequences – the piping organ at the beginning was engagingly folkish, very “out-of-doors”, as was the processional, “Guilô, pran ton tambourin!”, spacious and atmospheric, using the tune “For to us a Child is Born” as a kind of plainchant, the treatment varying choir with a solo voice (very difficult), capped off at the end by the organ, which introduced the “Kyrie”. After this the “Gloria” featured the melody “God rest you, Merry Gentlemen” with a bit of Elgarian swagger, but becoming dance-like at the Gloria’s conclusion, the part-singing at this point very assured and enjoyable to listen to.
We registered and enjoyed “In Dulci Jubilo” at the beginning of the Sanctus, in tandem with great ceremonial swirls of tone from the organ. Atfer this, the “Benedictus” struck a sombre, more reverential note, leading to an organ solo by Louis-Claude Daquin, a piping little tune “Bon Joseph, écoutez-moi” given firstly a dancing variation, then a thunderously resplendent one. The “Agnus Dei” tested the voices, both a solo voice from the choir and the sopranos, with especially cruel high entries towards the piece’s end, though the solo voice was steadfast and pleasing, and was supported most satisfyingly at the piece’s conclusion by a hummed note from the supporting voices.
To sum up, the performances from all concerned resonated most pleasingly with the beauties of the venue and its overall atmosphere – most enjoyable!