Madrigals-a-go! defined, declared and delivered by Cantoris with director Thomas Nikora

Madrigals – \ ˈma-dri-gəlz \ n. Poems set to music, sung a capella for two to eight voices

Cantoris, directed by Thomas Nikora

Music by Mozart, Tallis, Gibbons, Morley, Bruckner, Saint-Saens, Purcell, Rachmaninov, Chris Artley, Manning Sherwin, Billy Joel

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday, 6th September, 2017

The programme note was right to describe the evening’s entertainment as “a delightful Spring programme”, even if Wellington hadn’t thus far (and hasn’t since yet) had a weather response worthy of the name! Still, none of this was through want of trying on the part of Cantoris, whose singing at least warmed our insides and gave as good a precursor of the winds of change as any recent general election poll!

First up we were treated to a kind of “surround-sound” presentation of Mozart’s Cantate Domino, a piece of music I’ve not been able to find anything about, and certainly have never heard before – however, Cantoris’ treatment of the piece rendered such detail superfluous in situ, such was the impact of the group’s warm, open-hearted singing.

Beginning with a unison line, the sounds spread around the church’s interior, separating into parts and overlapping like an indoor version of “Forest Murmurs”, reaching a kind of saturation point at which the strands wound into a great unison statement of the opening – I found the effect of it all exhilarating!

Though the beautiful Thomas Tallis anthem/motet “If You Love Me” inevitably brought a reduction of ambient scale to the proceedings, following after such a spectacularly antiphonal opening, it also tightened up the vocal textures of the group to the point where we could register the balances and the different timbres of the voices, the women sounding a tad more secure than did the men, especially at the highest pitches. Towards the end, the overlapping effect of the voices produced a frisson of beauty which memorably coloured the music’s dying resonances of the music.

Orlando Gibbons’ “The Silver Swan” elicited properly silvery tones from the sopranos, with only the highest notes vulnerable to strain, while Thomas Morley’s rather less exposed lines in “Sing We and Chant It” allowed a more relaxed, rhythmically infectious mode, in which the lines found and balanced one another admirably.

Though I was far less familiar with Anton Bruckner’s choral music than with his majestic “symphonic boa constrictors” as Brahms unkindly called his symphonies (which, incidentally, I love!), I was charmed by “Locus Iste” a motet Bruckner wrote for the dedication of a new votive chapel at Linz – the words of the motet go on to translate as “This place was made by God”. Reminiscent of Wagner’s “Tannhauser” in places, the piece built impressively and characteristically, the voices fully relishing the piece’s dynamic range by appropriately “singing out”, while giving passages such as the concluding repetition of “a Deo factus est” a peaceful and serene aspect. I might have even guessed (well, maybe after two or three goes), had I listened “blind”, that the piece had been written by Bruckner.

The second Bruckner item, “Vexilla Regis” (The banners of the king) sounded quite a different kettle of fish – composed “out of a pure impulse of the heart” in 1892, it was the composer’s last completed motet, and demonstrated a markedly transformed style of writing compared to the earlier “Locus Iste”. Characterised by sudden unexpected shifts of harmony, the music recalled passages in the slow movements of Bruckner’s later symphonies (this time, I’m almost certain I would have guessed the composer first up!) How wonderful to hear the choir sing with such a confident sense of line, the voices taking all but the somewhat awkward concluding descent in their stride.

Asked to name composers of madrigals, I wouldn’t have thought to mention Camille Saint-Saens, though Cantoris would have you believe that he wrote at least one, “Calme des Nuits Op.68 No.1”, which we heard this evening (there also exists an Op.68 No.2, “Les fleurs et les arbres”, which one presumes would have been composed along the same lines…..). Anyway, due investigation suggested to me that Saint-Saens probably wrote the texts of both of these choruses himself, and invested them with a depth of feeling that isn’t usually accorded the composer’s music. Here, the “Calm of the Night” unfolded with long-breathed lines, the music freely modulating, the tones then burgeoning impressively for a few imposing measures before falling back again, and taking us to a concluding paragraph featuring some rapt, soulful soprano tones, most sensitively controlled.

Two madrigals of the “English” variety followed, each by Thomas Morley – the first was something of a workout for the soprano voices, having to sustain demanding exposed lines with support lower down from an answering group, a challenge the voices steadfastedly met, despite a “parched” sequence or two along the way. Rather less demanding was Morley’s “Now is the month of maying”, a jolly fa-la-la romp, with director Thomas Nikora on this occasion electing to sing as well as direct from within the ensemble’s ranks, making for plenty of fun and immediacy of dynamic differentiation!

The first of Purcell’s “madrigals” was, it seemed, a vocal arrangement of an instrumentally-accompanied solo, Fairest Isle, from a stage work “King Arthur”. The soprano solo was ripely-toned and gorgeous, with occasional bell-like qualities lightening the vocal ambiences. Then, with the second item “If Love’s a sweet passion” from “The Fairy Queen” the solo voice, joined in a reprise by the ensemble, brought strength and character to the words, qualities which underlined the music’s theatrical origins.

To finish the programme we were given an attractive bracket of performances with madrigal-like qualities across a spectrum of musical styles, beginning with Sergei Rachmaninov’s “Bogoroditse Devo” from his “All-Night Vigil”, a text known to English speakers as the “Hail Mary”, a gorgeous performance, filled with rapt fervour. New Zealand choral composer Chris Artley’s work “O Magnum Mysterium” resonated richly throughout its opening, towards some beautifully emphasised “Alleluias” and some echo effects between the men’s and women’s voices, before the piece finished with enriched clustered harmonies, beautifully shaped and resonated.

I knew “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” but not the concluding Billy Joel song. In Manning Sherwin’s pre World War Two hit, recorded by the “Forces’ Sweetheart, Vera Lynn”, a wordless vocalising sequence introduced a brief solo line before some flavoursome harmonic shifts tested the voices, who emerged with great credit from the sequences, nicely capturing the song’s atmosphere with plenty of nostalgic feeling.And so it was left to Billy Joel, with a song I thought worthy of the Beatles “And so it goes”, featuring a true-toned male solo voice briefly joined by a single woman’s voice, fetchingly harmonised and attractively resonated. It made a relaxed and good-humoured ending to the concert, one which I think the singers and their inspirational and energising conductor, Thomas Nikora, ought to be well pleased with.

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