Sombre Music of the Low Countries from the Bach Choir

Bach Choir of Wellington, conducted by Peter de Blois, with Douglas Mews (organ), Laura Barton (violin), Vivian Stephens (violin), Aidan Verity (viola), Lucy Gijsbers (cello), Michelle Velvin (harp), Jeremy Fitzsimons (percussion)

Music by Belgian and Dutch composers

St. Teresa’s Church, Karori

Sunday, 11 September 2016, 2pm

Most of this music made me feel low, like the countries.  Only Sweelinck (1562-1621) seemed to sparkle with life, and he was much the oldest of the composers performed, the others being all from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  I decided that I liked soulful music – but not doleful music.  After hearing two sombre works (first movement from Mahler’s 10th symphony and Berg’s violin concerto) the previous evening  from Orchestra Wellington, I was not in a receptive mood for music such as the choir sang, in a concert of over two hours’ length.

It was an ambitious programme of unfamiliar, and often difficult, works in modern idiom.  The relatively modern, large church has good acoustics, and the sound came over well, without undue reverberation from both choir and instruments.  The disadvantage was that all the performing took place in the organ gallery at the back of the church, behind the audience.  This meant we did not have the interest and stimulation of seeing the performers, which adds quite a lot to the enjoyment of music, especially when instrumentalists are involved.  Peter de Blois explained in his preliminary remarks that this was necessary because of the impossibility of moving the altar at the front of the church; thus there was not adequate space for the choir.

De Blois pointed out that the day was the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the US, thus the first part of the concert was about death, while the second dealt with resurrection.  Images, varying from statues to flowers to skies, were shown on a screen at the front of the church, but their relationship to the music being tenuous.  I did not find them a good substitute for seeing animated performers at their tasks.

The first composer we heard was Wietse Stuurman, born 1976; his Miserere mei Deus.  This involved, in addition to the choir, organ and strings, tubular bells.  The choir made a marvellous sound, and the effect of discords in the music was clear.  The organ part had splendid tunes, with a continuous pedal note.  The bell and organ became loud and insistent, but there was little variety of tonality in the piece, because of that note and bell.  The piece was mournful.  Although the words were reasonably clear, it was good to have the Latin words and translations for the whole programme, in addition to excellent notes.  The work was well performed, but didn’t ‘grab’ me, despite some interesting shifting harmonies.

Variations on ‘Mein junges Leben hat ein End’ by Sweelinck was a bright organ interlude, despite its title, especially after the second variation when a 2-foot stop was added.  More sounds and textures were added in other variations, before a return to quiet contemplation in the last one.  This was a most satisfying performance.

The next choral piece, a seven-movement Requiem, was by Huub de Lange (born 1955) and was set for choir and string quartet.  This would not have been easy to sing, but one or two voices tended to stand out at times, and top notes were not always hit squarely.  Otherwise, the choir produced lovely velvety tone.

I could not help thinking that Mozart, Schubert, Verdi and others knew how to make a Requiem Mass that was gorgeous, even animated, as well as solemn.  This one was monotonous; it needed more changes of tonality and mood.  However, there were some excellent dynamic effects, such as a fading pianissimo at the end of the Sanctus.  It was an innovative work and the choir and quartet made a good job of it, but the minimalist influences (remarked on in the programme note for the Stuurman work) made it boring to my ear.

Even the In Paridisum had a rather slow tempo and a minor modality, as did the unusually added Te Deum, which is a hymn of praise.  Yet it had doleful intervals of diminished and augmented seconds.  Its final Sanctus revealed a full choral sound, but it was not remotely jubilant.  The varying close intervals made great demands on the singers.

Sweelinck brought back some jollity, with variations on ‘Onder een Linde groen’ (Under a green linden tree), a secular piece.  It was delightful and uplifting, played with great contrasts of stops and between runs and detached chords. Use of reed stops in the finale reiterated the melody with different sounds.

Evert van Merode (born 1980) wrote his Stabat Mater dolorosa in 2013.  The men’s sound was good, but the women’s pitch was not always accurate; it was probably difficult to maintain it in this sort of tonality.  The harp had a dramatic part to play, but it didn’t always seem to fit with the other instruments (violin and cello).  For me, the best part musically was the concluding ‘Quando corpus…’ (When my body dies, grant that my soul is given the glory of paradise).

After the interval, the music was entirely by Flor Peeters (1903-1986), a Belgian organist and composer.  I still have the programme from his visit to New Zealand in the 1970s.  The Kyrie of his Missa Festiva had the men opening in sombre tones.  Despite the good acoustics, it was a drawback to clarity that they did not all pronounce the vowels in the same way.  Some of the choir tone sounded strained; there was a lot of difficult singing.  After the Kyrie, Mews played Peeters’s chorale prelude on ‘O Gott du Frommer Gott’, with a mellow tone and mood.

The splendid tenor introits to both the Gloria and the Credo were, I suspect, sung by de Blois himself.  At last, there was a bright mood in the declamatory Gloria.  Singing in the latter part of was without instruments, and the writing was not so taxing.  It came off well, especially the jubilant ‘Amen’.  It was interesting to hear the composer’s ‘Jesu meine freude’ chorale prelude which followed on the organ, since Bach’s settings as a motet and for organ are familiar.  It was more appealing than the mass, though there was little variation of volume or tone.

The first part of the Credo was appropriately loud, while the quieter section, Et incarnatus est, sounded splendid, apart from too many misplaced s’s from the choir.  The final section of the Credo was suitably exultant.  The Sanctus began a little flat, as did the Benedictus, and both continued that way intermittently, with less clear words and vowels.  I’m sure the singers were tired by this time.  An interposed chorale prelude ‘Ach bleib’ mit deiner gnade’ was played with gorgeous flute stops, and flowed in a Bach-like way.  The programme ended with the mass’s Agnus Dei.  This made a very pleasing finish, dying away at the end.

The concert was rather too long, but a tour de force from a good choir.  However, the choice of programme was challenging for both choir and audience, and the former was not consistent in its performance.  The instrumentalists were all strong, and Douglas Mews’s organ-playing was magnificent both in solo pieces and with the choir, where he was no mere accompanist.



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