Adventures in great music both well-known and unknown, marks strong revival by Cantoris

Cantoris conducted by Thomas Nikora

Sacred Music by D’Astorga and Mozart
D’Astorga: Stabat Mater
Mozart: Ave Verum Corpus, K 618; and Vesperae Solennes de confessore, K 339

Soloists: Olivia Marshall, Linden Loader, Jamie Young, Will King
Cantica Sacra Instrumental Ensemble of selected musicians

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 2 October, 3 pm

In many ways, an appealing way to design a programme: two of Mozart’s best-loved choral works and one obscure, but as it emerged, beautiful piece by an almost totally unknown composer. Emanuele d’Astorga was born in Sicily in 1680, in perhaps the most fruitful and brilliant decade in the whole history of western classical music – the decade of Vivaldi, Telemann, Rameau, Bach, Handel, Biber, Geminiani, Pachelbel, Domenico Scarlatti (who also divided his time between Italy, Spain, and Portugal; though Astorga lived in Spain at certain times, he lived mainly in Italy, travelled widely too).

Emanuele d’Astorga
Astorga inherited a Spanish barony with estates in Sicily (which was then under Spanish rule); Astorga is a town on the Camino de Santiago about 40km west of Leon in the province of that name. But there’s no evidence of his family’s residence there.

Thomas Nikora introduced the music but either he didn’t use the microphone or it wasn’t working properly for I caught little of it. Though the short account of Astorga’s life suggests that very little is known about him, browsing the internet, and even looking back to old sources such as the famous eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica there is an entry that covers most of what is known today. The best account I’ve seen is a CD booklet note by English choral conductor Robert King accompanying his recording of the Stabat Mater.

D’Astorga’s Stabat Mater
The Stabat Mater was probably written earlier than Pergolesi’s (1736), based purely on stylistic grounds (I can find no confirmation of its first performance in 1713, as offered in the programme notes).

One’s first reaction is a comparison with the very popular Pergolesi work, and the feeling that while Astorga’s is contrapuntally more sophisticated, it hasn’t Pergolesi’s artless poignancy. Nevertheless, the instrumental introduction immediately showed a skilled and imaginative composer, capturing a calm melancholy, in playing that was reassuringly secure, if not blessed with the aching sounds that the best baroque ensembles produce.

Here was an orchestra of nine strings (led by Corrina Connor) plus the chamber organ played by Heather Easting; to find fault would be unhelpful and difficult. The most important thing to stress is the huge difference a competent, instrumental ensemble makes to the persuasiveness and integrity of choral music. Much as I enjoy organ music, it usually fails as a substitute for the instruments prescribed by the composer as choral accompaniment.

The first choral entry was characterised by rising chromatic lines giving signs of a well-rehearsed choir, with soprano Olivia Marshall, right from the first, handling her lines very well, especially in her bright, higher register. The weaving of the separate lines of the choral writing, and their nicely balanced performance, that frequently made it hard to decide where the actual melody was – all parts were of equal interest. The same went for the soloists; soprano, bass, then tenor entered in turn in the ‘O quam tristis’. There were some initial tonal weaknesses, but nothing worth mentioning. An early delight was the soprano-mezzo duet at the start of the charming, triple time ‘Quis est homo’; and later in that section the men had similar opportunity which they exploited splendidly; as did tenor Jamie Young and mezzo Linden Loader in short fugal duets in the ‘Fac me tecum’.

The varied treatment of solo parts were soon comfortable, and continued to be a most attractive feature of the work. Bass Will King was uniformly impressive, his voice flexible over a wide range and relished his final exhibition in the ¾ time ‘Fac me plagis’ to which one can almost dance.

There are moments where one hears touches of Handel, in the final ‘Christe’ – the Amen chorus, or of Vivaldi in some of the rapid quaver figures from the strings; none of that’s very remarkable, since, until the current age of obsession with ‘originality’ there was nothing to be ashamed about in composing in a way that reflected one’s own age and one’s most gifted predecessors. In fact the final chorus whose contributions were charmingly varied, perhaps not in a way that especially illuminated the text, made the music constantly interesting and delightful.

There are records of a few operas by Astorga, but only one act of Dafne survives. However, he also wrote perhaps 170 ‘chamber cantatas’, said to be very attractive. Judging by the great gifts evident revealed in the Stabat Mater, I look forward to their being explored and performed.

Mozart: Ave verum and Vesperae solennes
The second half of the concert was for Mozart: the little masterpiece of his last months, Ave verum corpus, and then the splendidly-named Vesperae solennes de confessore (It always intrigues me to resurrect my knowledge of Latin grammar to explain the varying endings of each word).

The touches of uncertainty in the orchestral introduction of the Ave verum only emphasised the feeling of reverence and awe the musicians might properly have felt as they approached this serene, forgiving, simply beautiful music (I speak not of the religious significance), but there was nothing lacking in the subdued and carefully articulated performance.

The ‘Solemn Vespers’ was Mozart’s last composition for the Salzburg Cathedral before he left for Vienna. However unpleasant was his relationship with the Prince Archbishop, Mozart did not carry his feelings into this wonderful work. The chance of hearing it on a Sunday evening at your local church would have made adherence to the Catholic Church richly rewarding, in fact irresistible, in the years before the liturgical changes of the 20th century.

Again, both orchestra, now joined by a couple of trumpets and percussion, and choir evinced a touch of nervousness which quickly dissipated. It’s not only the beautiful ‘Laudate dominum’ that is memorable, each section (all are based on Psalms) is inspired both by melody and its musical elaboration. The ‘Dixit Dominus’ is a choral piece in triple time, and the singing was lively, and words were often distinct; the four soloists took change in the ‘Confitebor’, with soprano Olivia Marshall prominent, and she was a particular ornament later, in the ‘Laudate Dominum’; but each, particularly tenor Jamie Young, made distinctive contributions. They all conversed attractively in the ‘Beatus Vir’, as the voices formed and reformed the musical patterns, Linden Loader leading at times; and the strings handled their striking phases well. The ‘Laudate pueri’ is characterised by the men’s and women’s voices moving separately, fugally, around a steady almost hypnotic rhythm in common time.

It’s interesting that, in its setting, the ‘Laudate Dominum’ seems not particularly to stand out, but simply takes its place as a moment of calm between more forthright movements; apart from the splendid soprano solo, one of its glories was way in which the last bars fell away to beyond pianissimo at the end. The ‘Magnificat’, the last movement, finally made trumpets and percussion conspicuous, and gave more attention to soloists, sometimes in duet, sometimes separately.

Cantoris has had its vicissitudes over the years, but this concert was a small triumph both on account of the important and great music chosen (too many choirs seek obscure but insignificant music, guided by some ‘theme’) and the evident confidence and energy that Thomas Nikora has injected into it.



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