Singular, well-conceived recital by male four-voice ensemble, reaching far and wide

Aurora IV: Dark Light, To mark the Spring Equinox
‘Exploring darkness and light and the shadows in between’

Toby Gee (counter-tenor), Richard Taylor (tenor), Julian Chu-Tan (baritone), Simon Christie (bass)

Music from 500 years ago to five years ago, by Lassus, Sheppard, Jean Mouton, Schubert, William Harris, Andrew Smith, anonymous plainchant and two poems (Emily Dickinson and Anne Glenny Wilson)

Pukeahu National War Memorial, Hall of Memories, Carillon, Mount Cook

Saturday 22 September, 8 pm

The beautiful, and acoustically excellent Hall of Memories carved into the bottom of the Carillon is one of the loveliest places for music in the city. It’s a wonder that it’s not more used for music recitals.

My previous musical experiences here have been by choirs: The Tudor Consort, Nota Bene; and just three months ago, Peter Mechen reviewed a concert by Baroque Voices.

Aurora IV have moved around. Their last concert was in the TGIF series at the Cathedral of St Paul’s, and my last hearing, in November 2017, was at St Andrew’s on The Terrace with a programme that was nearly as wide-ranging at this was.

The Hall was lit by a dozen candles on the floor and others on ledges on the side walls. It created a strangely spiritual atmosphere that was generally appropriate to the sense of the music. However, it made the reviewer’s task tricky, for it was not possible to read the titles of the pieces, and so there was a certain amount of guesswork, later, in fitting my sketchy notes to the works listed on the programme; which was otherwise excellent, offering words of each piece, in English. Ideally, it’s also nice for the original language to be supplied as well… but you can’t have everything.

The programme, of sixteen pieces, with all the words ran to three pages. Though being advertised as being about an hour, it seemed improbable at the outset, but the timing was indeed right.

The theme of the concert, the Equinox, when hours of light start to exceed those of the dark, drew on music, and some poetry, that touched on the transition from darkness to the light, which lends itself to symbolic references, both religious and secular.

The major element was parts of a Requiem Mass by Orlando de Lasso (here Orlandus Lassus), late 16th century.

After the lights went down, distant sounds of singing emerged from behind us, as from nowhere: a plainsong setting of a verse from the Lamenatations of Jeremiah. Sung by a solo tenor – presumably Richard Taylor – it seemed to float into the high vault of the chapel.

There were also pieces by Oslo-resident British composer Andrew Smith. I was intrigued later as I read my notes alongside the programme to find that I’d remarked on the Renaissance sounds, alternating with distinctly contemporary passages; it turned out to be Smith’s Flos regalis virginalis, and was relieved to read that this was the composer’s style: “his modern harmonic twists cast sparks of light against the darker, mystical tones of plainsong and medieval polyphony“.

Furthermore, it created a sound image of more than four voices. Which was a characteristic of their singing that impressed me many times: I was hearing both the richness of a small choir, but of one whose perfect ensemble gave the impression of single voices.

Other Andrew Smith pieces were a Magnificat. Once again I found its nature enigmatic and my notes bore the cryptic word ‘language?’; it must have been Latin. However, I enjoyed the echoey, complex harmonies, along with touches of plainsong. Their third Smith piece was And Surrexit Christus (I’m not sure whether that is usually known as ‘Hodie Christus natus est’). Again, not being able to read the programme, I scribbled ‘wide harmonies evolving into more dissonant’ music. Aurora IV have recently given the New Zealand premieres of all his pieces performed in this concert.

The Introit, ‘Requiem aeternam’ of Lassus’s Missa pro defunctis, was the first of three excerpts; later we heard his setting of Psalm 23, as a Responsory, commonly used in the Mass, then the Sanctus, and near the end of the concert, the Lux aeterna. My note in the dark about the first of Lassus’s excerpts remarked ‘perfectly blended voices’, each sounding of similar impressive quality’, and later that the bass, Simon Christie, sounded ‘clearly of international stature’. That section included ‘Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion, Et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem’ and then the Kyrie.

Emily Dickinson’s comforting, much loved poem, ‘We grow accustomed to the dark’ followed, seeming to touch emotions very similar to the impact of the preceding music, though written three centuries later. It was admirably read, without a trace of elocuted, ‘poetic’ diction, by Toby Gee who also read Anne Glenny Wilson’s ‘A spring afternoon in New Zealand’ which was very popular in the 1890s. Not a poet I’d come across, and I enjoyed this poem and others by her that I found (inevitably, in these Googling times); quite comparable to Swinburne or Thomas Hardy, Bridges or Drinkwater, and Emily Dickinson if you like, of similar sensibility.

Quis dabit oculis? is a lament on the death of Queen Anne of Brittany by Jean Mouton – 16th century, featuring counter-tenor Toby Gee prominently. The Irish folksong, She moved through the fair, followed, after two of the singers had moved to the sides, conjured such a different aural landscape, in clearly pronounced Irish accents, in the seamless sounds of polyphony. (Was the remote sound of a flute an external coincidence or a part of the performance?).

Schubert’s Die Nacht was the only German entrant in the concert; apart from the distinct sound of the language, I might have been pressed to identify the composer, but the singing was perfectly idiomatic in words by a rather obscure poet of Schubert’s time. (part songs – there are many – by German Lieder composers, seem to be rarely performed).

Another anthem, in English, was William Harris’s Holy is the true light, a typical 20th century, four-part anthem, showing the quartet’s ease in a shift from the Medieval or Renaissance to a musically touching, contemporary idiom, not nearly as saccharine as such pieces sometimes sound.

Another outlier was a Latin motet by John Shepard, English mid-16th century, In Manus tuas, with a dominant tenor line handling the plainchant, between weaving polyphony, written probably during Mary’s reign when it was safe to compose Catholic music in Latin (dangerous not to!).

It ended with plainsong, as it had begun: first, lamenting the fall of Jerusalem, and the last offering the light of everlasting paradise. They were more or less forced to sing an encore: ‘Il bianco e dolore cigno’ by Flemish composer Jacques Arcadelt, which I was driven to find and play several versions of with great delight, on YouTube.

It was a totally admirable concert by four male singers whose voices coalesced in a way that is rare; and as well, they found the appropriate tone and rhythms that coloured the words and their musical settings, with sensitivity, awareness of their era, and just sheer intelligence.


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