“Gloria” from Nota Bene and The Queen’s Closet gladdens hearts and minds at St Mary of the Angels

Nota Bene and The Queen’s Closet presents

JS BACH – Cantata BWV 12 “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen”
Motet – “Jesu, meine Freude”
VIVALDI – Gloria RV 589

Nicola Holt, Jenny Gould – sopranos
Maaike Christie-Beekman – mezzo-soprano
John Beaglehole – tenor
David Morriss – bass

Nota Bene Choir  (director, Maaike Christie-Beekman)
The Queen’s Closet  (director, Gordon Lehany)
Solo oboe – Sharon Lehany / Solo baroque trumpet – Gordon Lehany

St.Mary of the Angels Church, Boulcott St., Wellington

Sunday 28th March, 2021

As it has happened the three concerts I have reviewed so far this year have taken place in various splendid Wellington churches, each contributing to the atmosphere, ambience and impact of the music and its making, spectacularly so in the case of the third occasion at St Mary of the Angels Church in Boulcott St., where a programme entitled “Gloria” was given by the Nota Bene Choir with the Queen’s Closet ensemble. There’s certainly a case for, wherever possible, presenting music such as on the latter programme in an ecclesiastical setting –it all seems to, in a generic sense, “go with the territory”, even if the purist might call to question the idea of music with such Lutheran austerities as Bach’s “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” Cantata being performed in a lavishly-appointed Roman Catholic Church such as St.Mary’s!

None of this seemed at all to matter as conductor Peter Walls set the music on its course, the plangent oboe tones of Sharon Lehany’s period instrument joining forces with the strings and continuo of the Queen’s Closet ensemble, immediately wrapping all about us the music’s inherent sorrow and depth of feeling, reflecting the idea that the way to Heaven for the Christian is a path of suffering and sorrow (an idea given voice in the work’s only recitative which follows). Here it is the Christian’s “bread of tears”, the Tränenbrot referred to by the chorus. From the choir’s finely-judged singing of the four opening words of the work, resounding across the soundstage, we were taken affectingly through the music’s “weeping” aspect and solemn processional mode, to the energising of the music at the words Die das Zeichen Jesu tragen (”These that bear the marks of Jesus”), before returning to the sorrowing cortege of feeling at the end.

The aforementioned recitative then brought mezzo-soprano Maaike Christie-Beekman to the platform, her aria which followed, Kreuz und Krone sind verbunden (“Cross and Crown are bound together”), involvingly delivered, both strongly-focused and  sensitively nuanced, the oboist most capable, by turns subtle and forthright, and the ‘cellist extremely attentive, binding the whole together with winning melodic shapes and phrasings. Bass David Morriss was next, with the lighter-toned Ich folge Christo nach (“I follow after Christ”), relishing the words, registering the almost visceral character of the phrase Ich kusse Christi Schmach (“I kiss Christ’s shame”) and unequivocal in his faith at the end. The same could be said for the tenor John Beaglehole’s performance, his voice rising to the challenge of the long, sinuous lines with great credit, managing elegantly in places, even if the crueller of a couple of sequences sounded a shade raw now and then. Here, the almost spectral trumpet tones, for the most part steadily and vibrantly delivering the chorale tune Jesu, meine Freude as a kind of counterpoint, seemed to “haunt” the tenor’s “stricken” phrases, such as  Alle Pein wird doch nu rein kleines sein (“All pain will yet be only a little thing”). Both trumpet and oboe join with the chorus for the final chorale, helping to make a more festively optimistic conclusion to the work.

Next on the programme was Bach’s motet Jesu, meine Freude, a work I can’t remember either hearing or seeking out previously in concert (a mis-spent youth listening to nothing but orchestral and piano music is partly to blame!) – having talked at length about the cantata, Peter Walls explained several points concerning this work as well. Talking can be a somewhat risky thing for musicians to do at concerts, as I know many people who can’t abide talk when they have come to an event to hear music! – however I was grateful to Professor Walls for his explanation concerning a work I didn’t know well, and particularly in the light of its singular structure.

Jesu, meine Freude was written in 1723, while the composer was cantor at St.Thomas’s Church, Leipzig. Its structure involves a combination of settings of Johann Franck’s verses for a 1653 Chorale of the same name with those of excerpts from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, eleven movements in all. There’s a kind of symmetrical “scheme” for the work – for example, the first two and last two movements are similar harmonizations of the chorale (based on a melody by one Johann Crüger, a well-known hymn composer and editor), and there are two groups of three (Nos. 3-5 and 7-9) which follow an identical pattern of chorale, trio and aria.

So, to the opening of the motet, warm, poignant-sounding phrases, shaped by heart-swelling sequences as the singers’ expression ebbed and flowed, with phrase following ingratiating phrase – Gottes Lamm, mein Bräutigam (God’s lamb, my bridegroom) being an example. A livelier sequence, beginning with Es ist nun nichts Verdammliches (There is nothing damnable) became energetically contrapuntal in its central section, the choir splendidly holding the lines throughout die nicht nach dem Fleische wandein (who do not walk after the way of the flesh), and triumphantly reaching the words sondern nach dem Geist (but after the way of the Spirit).

A sterner mood accompanied Unter deinen Schirmen (Under your protection), with the voices firmly withstanding “kracht und blitzt” and “Sünd and Hölle”, and finding peace in Jesus will mich decken (Jesus will protect me). And the following Den das Gesetz des Geistes (For the law of the spirit) was beautifully rendered by the three women soloists, sopranos, Nicola Holt and Jenny Gould, with Maaike Christie-Beekman, the lines by turns soaring and intertwining, reflecting the text’s life and freedom. Our sensibilities were arrested by the animated cries of “Trotz” (Defiance) and “Trobe” (Rage) from the chorus, Walls’s energetic direction bringing out the pictorial aspects of the text, the men’s voices enjoying themselves hugely in places such as Erd und Abgrund muss verstummen (Earth and Abyss must fall silent).

The men’s voices were to the fore at the beginning of the fugal Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich (You are, however, not of the flesh) as well, music whose “unfolding” quality was here “danced” to its grateful, more majestic conclusion. And both a dancing and lyrical spirit engagingly informed the lively choral presentation of the following Weg mit allen Schätzen (Away with all treasures), combined with the “Jesu , meine Freude” hymn-tune.  Two combinations of soloists followed, firstly mezzo, tenor and bass, who gave us a nicely contrasting So aber Christus in euch ist (But if Christ is in you), comparing the death of the body with the life of the spirit, the music at der Geist aber is das Leben (but the Spirit is life) again dancing, the combination of voices beautifully realised. And the succeeding Gute Nacht, o Wesen das die Welt erlesen (Good Night, existence that cherishes the world) again featured some mellifluous teamwork, with soaring lines steadily and atmospherically supported by lower voices. Having dispensed with the world and its sins, the music turned to its beginning, with the chorale Weicht, ihr Trauergeister (Away, you spirits of sadness) leading to a reaffirmation of the opening Jesu meine Freud – a fulfilling and heart-warming conclusion to the performance of this demanding work.

Slightly more familiar ground for me was the programme’s concluding work, Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria RV 589. Written at around 1715, the work was probably intended by the composer for performance by female voices, those of the members of the female orphanage, the Ospedale della Pieta, where Vivaldi himself was a teacher – whether he adapted an originally SATB work for female voices, or vice-versa, nobody seems to be sure. It’s definitely more often heard, as here, in this mixed-voices form, though I know of at least two female-voices only versions on record.

The opening “Gloria” with its distinctive octave-leap figure was here energised by spot-on ensemble playing and beguilingly coloured by oboe and trumpet, the occasional “rogue” note adding to the excitement! The voices relished the music’s dynamic range to exhilarating effect, contrasting dramatically with the following Et in terra pax  (and peace on earth) , stately and serene, with lines and waves of deep, minor-key feeling (a wonderfully, intensely drawn-out melismatic figure at “bonae voluntatis”, for instance). Laudamus te went with a swing, thanks to some exuberant singing from Nicola Holt and Maaike Christie Beekman; and the sterner Gratias agimus tibi bent our ears back with the severity of the opening, before suddenly unfurling to great effect in a burst of fugal activity.

Oboist Sharon Lehany joined forces resplendently with Nicola Hunt for Domine Deus, the oboe having a lovely plangency, and Holt a winning command of the longer line at Deus Pater Omnipotens.  Vivaldi’s relish of contrast in this work then gave us a rumbustious Domine Fili unigenite, the textures building excitingly and effectively towards a climax, before again bringing time almost to a standstill with a sobering Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Maaike Christie-Beekman resplendently interacting with the choir to moving effect, aided and abetted by some empathetic ‘cello-playing, leading to the heartfelt plea to heaven of Qui tollis peccata mundi, the voices seeming to resound upwards through the firmament at Suscipe deprecationem meam (receive our prayer). And I liked the energy of the near-Brucknerian trajectories of Qui sedes dexteram Patris, and mezzo Christie-Beekman’s floating of the lines above the insistent instrumental energies.

With “Quonian tu solu sanctus” the work suddenly came full circle, via the return of the opening music, followed, just as exuberantly, by a fugue, Cum Sancto Spiritu which took us to the final joyous “Amens”. Again, oboe and trumpet added colour and festive excitement to the spacious ambiences, the work’s full-blooded conclusion giving rise to scenes of well-deserved acclaim and appreciation from the body of the church, for much of that evening a receptacle of festive and heartfelt sounds.

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