Bach Choir celebrates Saint Cecilia, exploring interesting and important music with flair and taste

Bach Choir of Wellington, directed by Shawn Michael Condon
To St Cecilia and Music

The final concert of the Bach Choir’s 50th year, music from the 16th to 20th Centuries in honour of St Cecilia, patroness of musicians, whose Feast Day is celebrated on 22 November

Nicola Holt (soprano), Jamie Young (tenor), Daniel O’Connor (baritone) and Douglas Mews (organ)

Britten’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia, setting of Auden’s poem
Gerald Finzi: God is gone up with a triumphant shout
Gounod’s Messe Solennelle de Sainte-Cécile
Plus music by Johannes Jeep, William Byrd and Handel

Saint Mary of the Angels

Sunday 16 December, 2 pm

This was a famous concert: not many musical organisations survive for fifty years. In Wellington, only the NZSO and the Orpheus Choir can claim that (and I await outraged contradictions); though it might be possible to add Chamber Music New Zealand, a very important music promoter, which began as a Wellington society in 1945 and spread its reach nationally within a few years.

The Bach Choir has had a distinguished record; founded by organist, harpsichordist, early music scholar and university teacher Anthony Jennings, one of New Zealand’s most gifted musicians, born in 1945 and died tragically young in 1995.

Though Bach has been a pretty constant presence in the choir’s repertoire, he was absent from this concert, which was dedicated to Saint Cecilia, the largely mythical patron saint of music (her day is actually 22 November, which Britten chose as his own birthday in 1913).

The chair of the Choir, Pam Davidson, sketched the choir’s story and explained the way the Saint’s gifts were woven through the concert.

So several of the pieces performed had Saint Cecilia associations. Very appropriately, Britten’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia was here; but perhaps the best known and, for many, the best loved was the Gounod mass.

Renaissance Germany: Johannes Jeep
It began in complete obscurity (for me at least): Johannes Jeep was a Renaissance German composer, contemporary of Scheit, Schein and Schütz, Pretorius, Frescobaldi, Allegri, and in England, Weekles, Gibbons, Campion. He was born and spent his first thirty years in Dransfeld, near Göttingen, NW of Eisenach – and the Bach country, studied in Italy, then Kapellmeister at the court of Hohenlohe (in today’s Baden-Württemberg), then Frankfurt.

With the choir in two parts, half in the organ gallery, Musica, die ganz lieblich Kunst (Music the loveliest art), an a cappella piece, was melodically rather charming and it set the scene for a recital that would be marked by singing of considerable refinement, sensitivity and musicality.

Byrd and Handel
William Byrd’s ‘Sing Joyfully unto God’ was just that, another joyful piece, madrigal-like, with attractive interweaving counterpoint; its huge popularity in the century following its composition was easy to understand.

The piano introduced a chorus from Handel’s oratorio, Solomon, ‘Music, spread thy voice around’, which was another piece that expresses delight in music itself, this time without owing specific indebtedness to God. Now with the choir entirely in front of us, it was harmonically more dense, to be expected in music of 150 years after the previous piece. By this time, I started to pay closer attention to the management of the choir by their director Shawn Michael Condon: his careful ear for balance and integration of parts and matching the sense of the words to singing that made sense of them.

Britten’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia
The substantial item in the first half was Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia set to a poem that Britten had asked his friend WH Auden to write. Auden complied and Britten worked at it in New York during his three year stay in the United States at the beginning of the Second World War. But it was not performed there and when he sought his exit visa to return to Britain in 1942 US Customs confiscated the score, suspecting it could contain a secret code. Fortunately, Britten had the fortitude to recompose it on the torpedo-infested voyage home and it was given a radio performance later that year (I read nothing of the score’s possible return to the composer later, with humble apologies from the paranoid officials). You can find a short but interesting account of Britten’s and Peter Pears’ American episode in a recent article copied from Gramophone magazine: .

The music is quite dense and the church acoustic, generally very sympathetic, allowed it to sound cluttered at times; I think a little modification of the volume, particularly at emphatic moments might have helped. Considering its provenance, and its composition in the middle of the war, it was imbued with delight and optimism – fair enough for a 30-year-old. The dancing liveliness of the second stanza, like a scherzo movement, was brilliantly delivered, and the direct address to the saint at the end of each stanza: “Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions…”, found its contrasting ethereal spirit most successfully.

In the third section, the longest and the poetically and aesthetically most complex, I had the feeling at certain moments that a quite small choir, with most choral parts not far from the effect of solo voices, might produce a more pungent impact. Certainly, the solo parts were among the most joyous elements, though sometimes I wasn’t sure how many voices were involved, not sitting close enough to see who was actually singing. The last part of Section III is simpler, describing individual instruments; it was the most interesting part of this rather enchanting work and the feelings of preciousness that sometimes trouble me with Britten rather fell away (you can tell, I’m not a paid-up Britten groupie).

Poking about on YouTube, I came across a performance of the Britten by Ensemble Vocal du CRR (Conservatoire à Rayonnement Régional) de Montpellier, conducted by Caroline Gaulon; it was sung by small forces, about a dozen by the look of it, with an ecstatic quality and wonderful clarity: pretty good English too: ( Associated was a clip that I felt was a singularly enchanting collection of St Cecilia music: from Marc Minkowski’s Les Musiciens du Louvre, with music by Purcell, Handel and Haydn: Recommended!

Finzi triumphant
The second half opened with Gerald Finzi’s festive setting of words by a 17th century Puritan writer who emigrated to Massachusetts, Edward Taylor, based on verses from Philippians 2:9. This, accompanied by Mews at the organ (‘rather unsubtle at the beginning’, I jotted down) was like a continuous, rhapsodic pean of delight. I felt that the men tended to dominate and unbalance the sound in the early stages, but quickly came to enjoy the enthusiasm that drove conductor and choir. It achieves conventional musical shape by treating the second (last) verse as a meditative, slow, movement and then returning to repeat the first stanza with its ‘praise’, ‘triumphant shout’, ‘sounding trumpets’, ‘King of Glory’, asserting that all is well in this best of all possible worlds.

Gounod’s early years
I remember my surprise when I first encountered the Saint Cecilia Mass, from the Wainuiomata Choir under their splendid conductor, John Knox, in the singular setting of the main lobby of the Railway Station (how about choirs negotiating regular performances there, to astonish the communters and promote their gifts to the great unwashed). It was so full of almost secular vitality and tunefulness, not at all the sound of a typical liturgical work. And so I was not surprised that in certain quarters it tended to be denigrated as on the one hand not properly religious, and on the other, too ‘popular’, lacking the seriousness of proper classical music. Those shortcomings were fine by me; not that I don’t love Bruckner and Palestrina too.

Though Gounod had had a mass performed in 1839, aged 20, at the great church of Saint-Eustache just before leaving Paris on winning the Prix de Rome, the eight or ten years after his return were strangely barren as composer; he was a church organist, wrote several other masses, and various songs but nothing that hasn’t deservedly disappeared. Clearly he did not have what one imagines to be the mark of a real composer: music just flowing from his head demanding to be set down. He seems to have sort-of lost the composer ambition and remarked: ‘Je me sentis une velléité d’adopter la vie ecclésiastique’ – he took a fancy to a religious life.

Success in opera
Gounod’s real career started in 1849 aged 30, after he had become a friend of the distinguished singer Pauline Viardot. She spoke of Gounod to the director of the Opéra and he agreed to mounting an opera by him, especially when she promised to sing the title role in the suggested opera, Sapho. Viardot’s suggestion that prominent playwright, Emil Augier, tackle the libretto was again persuasive and suddenly a production by the Paris Opéra was on. What an extraordinary stroke for a composer with scarcely any reputation! Fortunately it was well received, mainly by the critics rather then the public, including Berlioz, at its first run in 1851. Though an aria, ‘O ma lyre immortelle’ is much anthologised, the opera itself didn’t survive.

Another opera La nonne sanglante and incidental music for a play followed, before the Messe solennelle appeared, in 1855. Its Sanctus too has taken a life of its own, shifted from the tenor to soprano – Kiri Te Kanawa among others.

The Messe solennelle – this performance
Finally, I come to the performance itself. The Kyrie opened with beautifully warm, subdued singing by female voices, quickly joined by other sections, with intermittent phrases from the three soloists; sculpted carefully and sounding as if they were deeply involved, though some tonal quality was lost as the singing intensified towards the end. The high soprano voice of Nicola Holt lit the Gloria serenely, joined by the choir in the same reverent tones. Then with the pregnant words ‘Laudamus te’, the full choir brought a totally new spirit of delight to the music, of determination. And the words ‘Domine fili unigenite’ brought a new narrative tone to it, first with solo baritone Daniel O’Connor, then tenor Jamie Young, both revealing voices well cast for the music. Various words that Gounod obviously considered significant continued to get highlighted, such as ‘Dominus Deus’, and the words ‘…qui tollis peccata mundi…’ which most composers clothe in particularly powerful phrases.

Scarcely anyone dares to observe that the best way to distinguish a masterpiece, a popular masterpiece, is almost always through melody. Some great composers get by without a very rich melodic gift, but there’s usually a powerful compensating element like an arresting flair for manipulation of melodic or rhythmic elements, or engaging the listener in a pattern of harmonic and tonal modulations. Try as certain of the severer class of music critics might to denigrate a Rossini or a Vivaldi, a Johann Strauss, or a Gounod, the presence of melodies that hang around long after the performance has ended, is the touchstone, assuming the composer has enough skill and taste to dress them interestingly.

This mass is certainly one of those, and to hear this Credo sung with any conviction tends to elicit the word masterpiece, much as it might sound a little pompous. Gounod breaks certain sections up, so the Credo completely changes its character from the confidence of the first exclamatory part, the grand ‘Deum de Deo, lumende lumine’, going quiet at ‘Qui propter sunt’, and especially ‘Et incarnatus’ with the soloists pianissimo, the singing moving between soloists to choir constantly, and then dealing with Pilate and the crucifixion in severe tones. The music of the beginning returns with the triumphant ‘Et resurrexit’, while the catalogue of beliefs continues with appropriate religious sanctity.

I dare hardly mention the one drawback of the concert: the absence of an orchestra, noticeable in the instrumental Offertory. Yet Douglas Mews created a sensitive and persuasive account of it on the Maxwell Fernie organ, and of the many moments elsewhere where the orchestra makes attractive gestures. And there was no escaping the quality of the singing under the choir’s director Shawn Michael Condon: clearly articulated, dynamically flexible and varied, and simply interesting in its story-telling character.

Gounod wrote the Sanctus for a tenor with intermittent choir. It’s the most popular part, often sung today by a soprano, like Kiri Te Kanawa. Jamie Young delivered a fine calm account of it, and he sang the ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ with a passion, that the organ supported very well.

The Benedictus is no less affecting and the choir and soprano Nicola Holt gave a moving performance of it, with its highlighted ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ delivered resolutely at the end.

It has always seemed to me that the Agnus Dei was a little less interesting than the rest of the mass. While there were lively things and of course it was splendidly sung in spite of small signs of fatigue, there were a few more signs of conventional harmonic shifts and of a composer who was going through the motions rather than breaking new ground (to use a couple of hackneyed figures of speech).

So in all, this was an excellent concert; a rewarding theme that was intelligently and resourcefully explored and exploited, a fine venue – wonderful to have St Mary’s back in good health, while the City Council has wasted several years dithering over the fate of the Town Hall – and finally, performed with taste and considerable skill under capable leadership.


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