Cantoris steps up to two of the great choral masterpieces, successfully in the face of difficulties

Cantoris Choir conducted by Mark Stamper, with Thomas Nikora (organ)
Soloists: Olivia Stewart, Lizzie Summers (sopranos), Sinéad Louise Keane (alto), Jeffrey Dick (tenor), Morgan-Andrew King (bass)

Handel: Dixit Dominus
Mozart: Vesperae solennes de confessore, K 339

Wellington Cathedral of ​St Paul

Saturday 9 November 2019, 7:30 pm

Handel’s Dixit Dominus was written in 1707 for the church of Santa Maria in Montesanto in Rome. He was in Italy between 1706 and 1710 and composed operas for Florence and Venice, but because the Vatican in Rome forbade opera, Handel wrote dramatic works in concert form, the most famous of which is the Dixit Dominus which is drawn from Psalm 110, part of the Catholic Vespers service, and thus related to the other work in the concert by Mozart.

It’s no secret that the Anglican Cathedral doesn’t offer an easy acoustic for many sorts of music, particularly large orchestral and choral works that, like most post-Renaissance music, is harmonically more complex and fast in tempo in many parts. This was the case here, particularly in brisker movements of both works with dense orchestral or choral passages. But it would be very hard to generalise as there were many, especially quieter parts, where the sounds were reasonably clear.

The concert encountered some problems during rehearsals. Richard Apperley withdrew from the organist’s role shortly before the concert and was replaced by Thomas Nikora who was to have conducted. He had not played the Cathedral’s organ and so had the challenge of mastering its manuals and registrations in a few days. A replacement had to be found for the podium, and Mark Stamper agreed to be ‘guest conductor’. There had been time for only two rehearsals and he admitted it had been a busy week!

There was also a late change to the soloists. Soprano soloist Jessie Rosewarne pulled out and Lizzie Summers, a soprano from the choir itself, stepped in and learned her solo parts in four days. It would have been hard to detect these problems, if we hadn’t been told.

Handel’s Dixit Dominus
Though I confess I miss an orchestra in both works, the lively, staccato opening of the first movement, the ‘Dixit Dominus’ itself, with Thomas Nikora at the digital organ was as good as one could expect; even if not quite what an ideal world would have given us, either from the now absent pipe organ let alone an orchestra. Solo voices were recruited from the New Zealand School of Music and though one could detect varying levels of skill and musicality, all performed their parts intelligently and in the appropriate spirit. The choir itself, though detail was sometimes clouded, had a brightness and warmth in all parts, but particularly the sopranos.

In the second part, ‘Virgam virtutis’, alto Sinéad Louise Keane sang attractively, her voice well projected in the upper register, while the organ rarely covered her.  The third section, ‘Tecum principium’, in brisk triple time, introduced the first of the two sopranos, Lizzie Summers (who I assumed took over the role of the first solo soprano), though physically slight, had a fine ringing voice, particularly in the upper register, and her intonation was good. The fourth section, ‘Juravit Dominus’, with a rather heavy organ introduction, returned the music to the choir alone, the next chorus singing in exclamatory spirit, singing again with clarity and energy. The choir again sang the next chorus, ‘Tu es sacerdos’, a lively movement with dense textures that were a bit troubled by the reverberant space.

All soloists, for the first time, and the choir sang the brisk, triple-time ‘Dominus a dextris tuis’. First, the two soprano soloists (Olivia Stewart and Lizzie Summers), and the alto, rising alternately in pitch, were joined by tenor Jeffrey Dick, and bass Morgan-Andrew King – both male singers present for the first time and making very good contributions. Next, Handel wrote music for ‘Judicabit in nationibus’, for chorus without soloists. But this was omitted, as I suspect the ‘conquasabits’ with which it ends might have seemed a bit barbaric and challenging. So the eight part became the seventh: ‘De torrente in via bibet’ (‘He shall drink of the brook’). It is a slow, penetential, rather beautiful chorus that opened with soprano at the top of the stave and alto, soon joined by chorus, women first and then men, in an affecting episode.

The last movement, ‘Gloria Patri, et Filio’, is predictably joyous and quite long with a staccato, incessant pulse and the usual protracted Amen.

Mozart’s Vesperae solennes
Mozart’s Vespers, the last work he wrote for the Salzburg Cathedral before he went to Vienna, was a great choice. It’s rare to have a concert that consists of two undisputed masterpieces, instead of the more common habit of attempting to get audiences to listen to undistinguished, uninteresting minor works along with just one great composition.

It struck me as strange and surprising to find, after the splendid Handel work, Mozart’s comparable setting of the Vespers service, that begins with Dixit Dominus, just a little less dramatic and, well, exciting than Handel’s. Yet its flowing lines with the full choir, sounded coherent and beautiful. The music of the ‘Confitebor’ struck me again as such an individual and imaginative setting, first with the full choir, then at ‘Memoriam fecit…’, with four soloists – the same as in the Handel (if I have them right, Stewart, Keane, Dick and King): there were some taxing ornaments in the alto part.

It always surprises me that the title ‘Beatus vir’ always brings to mind my teen-age encounter with the famous setting by Monteverdi on a 78 record that I’d unknowingly picked up. Since then I’ve heard many other settings, naturally, and Mozart’s is right up there! – a mixture of the solemn and the discursive in triple time, with voices seeming to speak to each other. Again the full choir sings the first couple of minutes and then, variously, solo voices took turns effectively.

‘Laudate pueri’ begins with an imposing and carefully articulated fugue which the choir handled well; followed by the well-known ‘Laudate Dominum’ sung with a sense of joy, but also consolatory expressiveness by both choir and soprano (Olivia Stewart).

The ‘Magnificat’ was ‘grand’ according to my notes. The choir not only coped well with the acoustic, but I thought they actually exploited the echo interestingly as the music rose and fell, and though I’m reluctant to single out individuals, the soprano was brilliant.

In spite of the comment where I rated the Handel a little ahead of the Mozart, I had now come to feel after these two adjacent performances that any such comparison was foolish, for I had again fallen in love with Mozart’s marvellous work.

To have programmed both in one concert was both brave and successful, and in spite of all the last-minute problems and the short rehearsal time, I felt at the end that the choir, organist and conductor had overcome them and had given the audience, especially those hearing them for the first time, a bit of a revelation.

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