Bach Choir offers rewarding looks into Purcell, Mozart and later English music

The Bach Choir of Wellington conducted by Peter de Blois, with Douglas Mews – organ

Soloists: Sharon Yearsley, Maaike Christie-Beekman, James Young (replaced by the conductor), Simon Christie and Chris Buckland – soprano saxophone

Purcell: Te Deum Laudamus and Jubilate Deo, Mozart: Vesperae solennes de confessore, K 339; James Whitbourn: Son of God Mass; Parry: Hear my words, ye people

Church of St Peter, Willis Street

Sunday 15 May, 3 pm

This concert had been scheduled for Saturday 16 April but, as explained by conductor Peter de Blois, there was an organ problem which required an organ transplant (probably a hoary one for organists).

De Blois also announced another change; the tenor was indisposed and so his place was taken by the conductor who happened, fortuitously, to be vocally equipped in a suitable way.

Purcell’s Te Deum Laudamus and Jubilate Deo
The earlier music came in the first half: two of Purcell’s last church compositions, written a year before his death in 1795, at the ripe Mozart and Bizet age of 35 or 36 (depending on what dates you observe for Purcell). The Te Deum Laudate and Jubilate Deo are often linked: Handel’s Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate follow the same model.

The Te Deum was composed with orchestral accompaniment and, though I didn’t know that at the concert, I made unappreciative comments about the organ registrations in my notes; though I conceded that the contrast with the choral singing was ‘interesting’. Oh for accompaniment by brilliant trumpets and strings, something that one yearned for in the Mozart too!

Bass Simon Christie opened the singing strongly and confidently and mezzo (listed as ‘alto’) Maaike Christie-Beekman followed with rather impressive handling of the highly decorated melismatas from the verse ‘ The glorious company…’. Though the choir’s singing was generally well integrated and accurate, the entry of three soloists at ‘To thee all angels cry aloud’ introduced a rather more polished element; particular musical were the soprano-alto duet episodes, and the solo contributions from soprano Sharon Yearsley, and when De Blois’s tenor parts arrived they were perfectly comfortable.

One of the most affecting episodes was Christie-Beekman’s ‘Vouchsafe O Lord…’.

The Jubilate Deo is set to more lively music, with well-balanced choral singing; Douglas Mews’s organ playing was sympathetic. Again, Maaike Christie-Beekman’s voice proved splendidly appropriate to the music, tripping through the quick dotted rhythms, and again there was charming soprano-alto duetting. Another interesting duet was between the alto and bass where the bass had the melody much of the time, though pitched lower.

Vesperae solennes de confessore, K 339
Mozart’s Solemn Vespers fulfilled my linguistic preference for Latin (Purcell’s setting was in English). It’s some time since I heard the entire work, his last for Salzburg Cathedral; though the ‘Laudate Dominum’ has the familiarity of a popular opera aria. The soloists are not such a constant presence as in the Purcell, so one paid greater attention to the chorus. After a moment of uncertainty early in the ‘Dixit Dominus’, the choir performed well, with plenty of energy with the momentum of the triple rhythm. It quickly served to remind me of the greatness of this music that seems somehow to be ranked below the Mass in C Minor or the Coronation Mass or of course the Requiem; with little justification.

The ‘Confitebor’ offered fine opportunities for the soloists, with short episodes for the two men which sounded very well. The four soloists in the ‘Beatus Vir’ enjoyed a striking moment, from ‘Gloria et divitiae..’ and again at ‘Jucundus homo’, singing through the verse one by one, sort of in canon. And the soprano here sounded especially practised and polished.

They did well in the fugal ‘Laudate Pueri’, with inflections that seemed to show meaning of the words. And the drop in dynamics as they entered the final verses, ‘Gloria patri et filio..’ found dramatic qualities in the language of the Psalm (113), which always raises Mozart’s liturgical music above the merely religious. The ‘Laudate Dominum’, of course, offered Yearsley an arresting solo opportunity; and it’s not without lovely choral episodes. Heard in the context of the six parts of the Vespers service, the ‘Laudate Dominum’ does not really stand out in isolation from the marvellous music in all parts of the work.

The last section, the ‘Magnificat’, ranks with other great settings of that text and the choir did it energetic justice, with a final gathering of splendid solo forces; and bold choral singing, though once again, high trumpets and pulsing strings were missed, in spite of Douglas Mews’s very creditable efforts on the organ.

James Whitbourn: Son of God Mass
It was a good idea to separate Parry from Mozart with a piece written in the 21st century. Whitbourn’s Son of God Mass, written in 2001 for a BBC documentary, employed an obbligato soprano saxophone, in the hands of Chris Buckland, and it’s actually scored for organ accompaniment. So the organ part, presumably with detailed registrations, was interesting in the fabric of the singing. Much of the organ part was comfortably low pitched, better integrated with the voices. As a quote from the review of a recording remarks, comparisons with Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble are inevitable, though not invidious. Not all the Mass is used.

It’s melodic in an unapologetic way, the music is varied in articulation and dynamics, speed and rhythms, and the saxophone does unusual, somewhat spiritual things. It uttered a loud cry at ‘Domine fili unigenite’ and remained at hand through the start of the ‘Credo’, where the words were pronounced slowly and deliberately.

The choral parts are not too challenging, yet there were plenty of opportunities for dramatic outbursts: the ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ provided an obvious occasion for a bit of ecstasy. The final Amen ended with voices and saxophone way up high. An attractive and successful piece.

Parry’s Verse Anthem
Returning to Parry, Hear my words, ye people was written in 1894 for a diocesan choral festival at Salisbury Cathedral, to be sung by combined parish church choirs, so it’s not too hard. But the parts for soprano bass, and the organ are more taxing. It might be for that reason that I had the feeling that the organ was not always on the same page (excuse the popular cliché) as the choir.

I also felt that this music, conceived for the huge space of an English cathedral, called for a generous acoustic that would wind the sounds around the side aisles and up into the vaulted ceiling before returning to human ears in the nave in careful confusion. Minor choral weaknesses could be disguised and the impact enhanced, to suggest more of a colourful and grand religious, even spiritual, ritual. All four soloists had happy moments in the limelight; the bass enjoyed quite a dramatic experience, though it went a bit low for his comfort at one point.

The main weakness for me was the descent in the last phase, to a very ordinary hymn, O praise ye the Lord, that sounds just like the thousand other hymns sung in Anglican and other protestant churches around the world.

Yet in many ways, this work represents much that was excellent in English 19th century music, and from the 21st century perspective, it can be judged more generously than ‘Parry and Stanford’ were by many critics and audiences of the mid 20th century. We are probably seeing a timely revision of these attitudes.

Marvellous programme of string sextets from Amici Ensemble and Wellington Chamber Music

Amici Ensemble
(Wellington Chamber Music Trust)Anthony Ritchie: Ants: Sextet for Strings, Op.185
Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence, Op.70
Brahms: Sextet in G, Op.36

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 15 May 2016, 3.00pm

It is heartening and impressive to see that a New Zealand composer has written 185 opus numbers and indeed, as I write, Anthony Ritchie’s flute concerto is being broadcast on Radio New Zealand Concert. His Sextet was commissioned this year by Christopher Marshall for the Amici Ensemble. This work is apparently a follow-on from his octet, appropriately named ‘Octopus’. Taking the first syllable of the new work’s grouping might have been dangerous, so instead we have the first syllable of the composer’s name.

The movements are titled ‘Hatchling’ (or as in the heading to the programme note, ‘Hatching’), ‘Working’, ‘Anteater’, ‘Self-impaling’ and ‘Survival’. These occasioned a certain amount of joking between my neighbour at the concert and me; especially the second to last movement title; at my home the ants self-impale in the electric socket over the bench. My neighbour (and reviewing colleague) thought that this was obviously working as a means of pest control. However, the music proved that even ants can be inspiring.

All the players are members of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra: Donald Armstrong and Malavika Gopal (violins), Julia Joyce and Andrew Thomson (violas) and Andrew Joyce and Ken Ichinose (cellos).

The five movements of the sextet were played without a break, and it was not always easy to tell where they changed. The pentatonic opening created a delightful mood, contrasting busyness with a spacious feeling from the first violin especially, displaying the very skilled string writing that characterised the whole work. There was much rhythmic drive and energy; pizzicato and sul ponticello (playing close to the bridge) techniques were utilised. In both first and last movements there were sections of a moto perpetuo character. Other motifs and diversity of rhythms revealed a variety of qualities. The whole was accomplished, enjoyable, expressive, and fun.

At the conclusion of the Tchaikovsky work, my neighbour remarked that it seemed almost orchestral in nature; my reply was that the recording I have is indeed played by a string orchestra (22 players). Nevertheless, it was rewarding to hear Souvenir de Florence played in its original form, though the quality, animation and volume of sound achieved by these players, in the fine acoustics of St. Andrew’s, made it hard to realise at times that we were hearing a sextet and not a string orchestra. It was wonderfully rich and sonorous playing.

The allegro con spirito first movement lived up to its designation, right from its passionate opening. It was both dynamic and exciting, alternating with lush moments played with complete unanimity. There were insistent motifs and rhythms. The slow second movement was, as Donald Armstrong told the audience in his introductory remarks, more Italian in character than were the other movements. Some of the music was enchanting, with gorgeous melodies, and a long, bewitching passage of luscious, grandiose, incisive chords, as in a choral composition; they sent shivers down my spine. The superb cello playing of Andrew Joyce in a solo melody exemplified again what many of us heard on a bigger stage on Friday evening when he played the beautiful cello solo in Brahms’s second piano concerto – and again in a solo passage in Shostakovich’s first symphony.

The third movement is shorter and lighter in tone, but not without energy and vivacity, especially in passages of folk-inspired tunes, and echoes of the previous movement. It ends quietly. The allegro finale should have had us dancing in the aisles, such was the animation and rhythmic vitality of the music. The fullness of tone was always impressive. As the excellent programme note by Julie Coulson ended “The movement concludes in a frenetic, headlong rush that leaves no doubt of Tchaikovsky’s sense of triumph.” In which he was quite justified.

I have hunted in vain for the programme of an early evening concert from those distant, halcyon days when there were many classical concerts in the International Festival of the Arts. The Sextets of Brahms, which were new to me, were played by an ensemble led by Carl Pini, at that time based in Christchurch. What I did discover, though, was that in the 1992 Festival there were, in addition to the New Zealand String Quartet, three string quartets visiting from overseas for the Festival! What a plethora of fine music we had in those Festivals! Concerts were well attended, I recall.

As the programme note stated, the first movement wavers between two tonalities, a feature typical of Brahms – it occurred in the 2nd piano concerto played on Friday, and in a number of his motets and other choral pieces. Soon there is a bold melody from the cello, soon repeated, that reminded me of some of his lovely lieder. This was followed by a violin melody, and wistful interchanges between the instruments. More fine melodies later made the whole a very satisfying movement.

The scherzo second movement produced long, winding passages that had a mysterious quality, apart from the jocular presto trio section, which was more like a gipsy dance, with much pizzicato backing it. The slow movement again did not quickly reveal its tonal home. Again, pizzicato ornamented the melodies, lessening the solemnity somewhat. The tempo and spirit livened up for a time, before lapsing back into pensive mood, with its undulating phrases and rhythms.

The finale restored life, colour and sparkle. Once more, there were dynamic solo passages for the cello. Comparisons are unfair, but… compared with Tchaikovsky, Brahms shows plenty of inventiveness, in a less exuberant style; the exciting ending perhaps gave the lie to that remark.

It was marvellous to hear these works from outside the standard chamber music repertoire. The three substantial works brought out uniformly excellent playing from the ensemble. The concert was being recorded by Radio New Zealand Concert, so we may look forward to hearing it again, via radio.