Triumphant performances of choral masterpieces of Vivaldi and Handel

The Tudor Consort and The Chiesa Ensemble directed by Michael Stewart

Handel: Dixit Dominus HWV 232
Vivaldi: Gloria in D, RV 589

St Mary of the Angels

Saturday 1 September, 7:30 pm

Vivaldi is believed to have composed three settings of the Gloria; one of them is lost, but the other, RV 588, is extant and sometimes performed. I think both are in the key of D. I can recall hearing it sung in Wellington, 15, 20 years ago. But I don’t have clear memory of it. I suspect it was at St John’s church on Willis Street. If anyone can help my memory I’d be glad to hear.

However, it’s the one we heard, to great delight, this evening that’s the glorious one.

It’s a real bonus that The Tudor Consort often engages a first class instrumental ensemble to accompany them, in accordance with the composers’ intentions for, much as I enjoy organ music it rarely sounds good accompanying choral works not scored specifically for organ. There was, of course, a continuo organ part, played on the William Drake pipe organ, from Victoria University, by Tom Chatterton. The Chiesa Ensemble consists of NZSO players and their professional talents enriched both the Vivaldi and Handel, with energy, refinement and sheer accuracy.

The Vivaldi opens with a strong orchestral introduction that immediately demands attention, and it was soon joined by the choir which inhabited, naturally, the space of the beautifully restored church. Here, Vivaldi’s typically bright, melodious music, in a joyous religious spirit fitting the obvious sense of the text.

In this acoustic its sound was a good fit for a work composed for a church of this size, the convent/orphanage where Vivaldi worked for much of his life, the Ospedale della pietà near the Piazza San Marco.

The piece is in eleven sections, each distinct in character, tempo, composed for varying combinations of choir and soloists.  And the choir, from which very fine solo voices were drawn handled it with affecting subtlety. The second section, ‘Et in terra pax…’ opened quietly with men’s voices, then women’s, plangent, in increasing volume. They seemed to rejoice in its subtle harmonies, with voices so perfectly balanced.

The soloists proved a special delight; first, sopranos Anna van der Leij and Anna Sedcole, in ‘Laudamus te’, their youthful-sounding voices, precise and pure, blending quite charmingly.

Vivaldi’s notion of religious figures is such as to delight even the non-believer: the simple piety of the Gratias, and then the solo aria from Amanda Barclay, introduced beautifully by oboes and basso continuo with its conspicuous organ part.

The triple time, dance-like chorus, ‘Domine fili’, brought another colourful musical element to the piece, again an inducement to belief. And then a lovely cello solo from Eleanor Carter(?) introduced the more subdued ‘Dominus Deus’, with the rich mezzo voice of Megan Hurnard. The fourth soloist was mezzo Eleanor McGechie, singing ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris’ with elegant string accompaniment, again in triple time though in a minor key.

The joyous music that began the Gloria returns for the brief penultimate chorus, ‘Quoniam tu solus Sanctus’ before the only distinctly contrapuntal movement: the ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ which sustained the celebratory spirit to the end, with the entire orchestra, including Mark Carter’s brilliant trumpet.

The whole performance, of one of the most delightful of ‘religious’ works, was sung with idiomatic style, energy, even exhilaration; all of which reinforces the feeling that the 18th century, as well as being the Age of Enlightenment, managed to find the right balance between rational thinking and religious ritual, which found their finest expression in that age before the emergence of the Romantic era.

Dixit Dominus
It seemed almost too much to believe that another, possibly even greater, religious choral work was to follow, with Handel’s Dixit Dominus, written less than a decade earlier. It was interesting to read the programme’s remark that parts are a bit bloodthirsty for modern sensibilities (but they only conform to the narrative in a book I’m currently reading, The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey, dealing with the torture and murder of non-believers, and the destruction of classical literature, sculpture, art and buildings by the early, and also not-so-early Christians).

However, in the 18th century, ways were found to rejoice in religious ritual and belief in a not so conspicuously cruel, intolerant manner; and this work is one of the most spectacular exemplars.

It’s a more complex work than the Vivaldi, even though Handel was only 22 while Vivaldi was about 37. There’s greater richness and dramatic variety, more contrapuntal extravagance, and the programme did well to quote Robbins Landon remark that it is ‘of staggering technical difficulty’.

Like the Vivaldi, it opens with a string orchestral introduction; and the choir spits out the words ‘Dixit Dominus’ insistently, leaving no room for doubt and the choral part is at once more emphatic, varied, through inter-weaving parts.

Again, the second part,’Virgam virtutis’, opened more calmly, with alto Andrea Cochrane and a solo cello accompaniment, her voice almost prayerful. The soprano aria ‘Tecum principatus’, after a calm orchestral introduction, was sung by Amanda Barclay, comfortable rather than brilliant, though she dealt easily with ornaments.

Then the ‘Iuravit Dominus’ opened and closed with energetic, staccato passage warning of God’s inflexibility, and the more dense and rapid-fire staccato ‘Tu es sacerdos’ that spelled out the priest’s commitments, with fast, challenging, staccato again. The same rapid music accompanied the ‘Dominus a dextris tuis’, now with five soloists: Anna van der Leij, Anna Sedcole, Anna Cochrane, John Beaglehole and Matthew Painter; a very singular and challenging movement that again drew attention to the choir’s skill and taste, and the same talents, plus commanding leadership and interpretive gifts of conductor Michael Stewart. The movement ends with one of the most individual passages, the stammering ‘conquassabit’ which was entertaining.

Van der Leij and Sedcole took solo parts again in the ‘De torrent in via bibet’, more peaceful and comforting than much of what had gone before, with striking dissonances making a singular impact; it slowly and almost magically, fades away. Finally, the last chorus, ‘Gloria Patri et filio’, was a last opportunity to demonstrate the fruits of, I imagine, extended and scrupulous rehearsal, with its fast contrapuntal, virtuosic singing that went on and on, showing no signs of exhaustion.

These were triumphant performances of two works that need to be heard, live, regularly, just to remind us of the genius of both composers as well as to illustrate the fertile environment in which they worked. Finally, right till the end, there was scarcely any sign, in the choir’s performance, of the music’s challenging difficulties.


3 thoughts on “Triumphant performances of choral masterpieces of Vivaldi and Handel

  1. Douglas Mews says:

    No not digital, though played with one’s digits. It’s the William Drake (pipe) organ from VUW that has been used in Wellington for the last 36 years or so.

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