Mozart Vesperae Solennes de Confessore, K339
Evening Music and Lullabies by Franck, Brahms, JS Bach, Karg-Elert, Haydn, Lauridsen, Whitacre, Sullivan and David Hamilton
The Bach Choir of Wellington
Music Director: Shawn Michael Condon
Accompanist: Douglas Mews
Vocal Soloists: Shaunagh Chambers (soprano), Kate Manahi (mezzo), LJ Crichton (tenor), Samuel McKeever (bass)
Saturday, 24 July 2021
This was a concert of two halves, as they say in rugby. The first half consisted of the advertised Mozart Solemn Vespers, and the second half consisted of ‘Evening Music and Lullabies’, on the basis, I suppose, that Vespers is the evening prayer service, one of the Canonical Hours in the Catholic liturgy, although you wouldn’t find any of these items following a Catholic Vespers. But more of this later.
The liturgical Vespers consists of five psalms, preceded by a chant and followed by the Magnificat, with the doxology (‘Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto…’) at the end of every psalm. Mozart wrote this Vespers for the Cathedral of Salzburg in 1780. It is scored SATB with a small orchestra including two trumpets and three trombones, basso continuo plus organ, but in this case Douglas Mews substituted for everything.
For the first half of the concert, the choir was stationed in the gallery of St Andrews, around the organ. This must have been a bit of a squeeze, because there are nearly 60 of them, plus four soloists. I couldn’t see how cramped they were, though, because I was sitting at the front of the back half of the seating, facing forwards. The front half of the seating had been rearranged to face inwards, separated by a narrow aisle.
I was in St Andrew’s a few weeks ago for the terrific Inspirare concert, where the choir (all 18 of them) sang from the choir loft, but that evening all the downstairs seating faced backwards. In both cases, putting the choir up in the gallery worked well. Now that St Andrew’s has thrown a cool three million at the organ, we can probably expect more of it. It strikes me that the choir sound is enhanced by singing upstairs, even in a dryish acoustic.
In any event, I was waiting for the choir’s first note with slight trepidation. The Bach Choir was once an excellent choir, but it fell on hard times. ‘What do they sound like these days under Shawn Condon?’ I wondered. Much, much better is the answer. The first phrase of the ‘Dixit Dominus’ was full and confident; the second higher and louder. The choir’s sound had a fuzzy quality, a bit like peach fuzz, which I found oddly beautiful. With a choir of sixty, it’s easier to sing loudly than quietly, and very hard to sing exactly together, so the fuzz was probably the result of dozens of tiny inexactnesses. Still, the opening filled me with confidence. This was going to be a great concert.
And so it proved. There were four soloists supporting the choir, all young singers at the start of their careers. The soprano gets the most work, being given the well-known Laudate Dominum (aka Psalm 117) with the choir as backing group. In this case, it was Shaunagh Chambers who was doing the full Kiri. She is in her honours year at New Zealand School of Music, where she is taught by Jenny Wollerman and Margaret Medlyn. She has a lovely voice for Mozart, bright and agile, and she sang the few florid passages she was granted with athleticism, plus Wollerman-like precision and beauty. But the other soloists were no slugs, even though they had hardly anything to do. I was especially taken with the delicious dark sound of Samuel McKeever, the bass soloist. He is a graduate of Project Prima Volta and recently performed with the NZSO. Tenor Lila Crichton was also great, and mezzo Kate Manahi, like the tenor and bass, a Project Prima Volta graduate, has a glorious voice. They sounded beautiful together in their quartet passages.
Early on the choir’s diction was rather muddy, but it had improved by the time they got to the doxology of the second psalm, Confiteor tibi. The dynamics were somewhat samey at first with a lot of mf and not much else until the third psalm, Beatus vir. Here the soloists sang as a quartet, and the choir’s first entry was a bit pallid after their brilliant tone. The basses begin No 4 Laudate pueri, but the tenors follow straight after. There are currently 12 basses in the choir but only six tenors, yet the tenors sounded gorgeous: they have a completely unified sound, young and fresh, which creates the effect of much bigger forces. The altos, I thought, often sounded underpowered, getting lost in the texture, yet there are 17 of them.
Mozart’s Magnificat in this Vespers is not subtle: word-painting applied by trowel. By the time they got to ‘quia respexit’ the choir was giving it plenty of welly, and the tenor section briefly overblew. But the soloists came to their rescue. Though the women nearly came to grief in ‘dispersit’, they were brought into cohesion in ‘Abraham et semini eius’ which sounded definitive. The soloists led into the doxology, followed by the choir. The tenors were briefly a bit on the rough side – pushing too hard? And then it was over.
The pieces in the second half of the concert were a mixed bag. It opened with César Franck’s setting of Psalm 150, a gorgeous thing, with the choir accompanied by the organ. The work was composed to inaugurate the new organ at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris, and was scored for organ, choir, and orchestra. The aim is to show off the capabilities of the organ, and Douglas Mews did a splendid job; supported by the choir, with fluting sopranos and the men lyrical and majestic by turns.
Next came my favourite work of the concert, a very Brahmsian rendering of ‘Wie lieblich sint deine Wohningen’, the most performed movement from the German Requiem. They sang in great rolling waves of sound, with the altos sometimes getting lost in the texture, and then found again. The basses sounded splendid. The subito piano was dramatic, and the occasional drop in tuning (a loss of energy at the ends of phrases) went almost unnoticed.
Then came an organ and chorus version of Bach’s ‘Nun danket alle Gott’ from BWV 79 which seemed a bit antique after the lush chords of the Brahms, with the choir singing the harmonized hymn tune and the organ providing all the elaborations. I wondered why it was here, out of time and not very ‘evening’ in theme; but before I had formed the thought it was attaca Karg-Elert’s rowdy setting of the same tune as a triumphal march, in case the Bach had put anyone to sleep. It was a magisterial showing off of everything the refurbished organ can do. Douglas Mews must have eleven arms.
The choir moved downstairs, and stood at the front of the church to sing David Hamilton’s ‘God be in my head’, a movement from a mass written for the choirs of Westlake Boys and Girls schools. I was surprised to see that the Bach Choir is older than it sounds. (In my day, the Bach Choir comprised under-35s.) The Hamilton was a capella and more challenging, but they sang it sweetly and simply, heads mostly buried in their scores. Mews came down to join them at the piano for Haydn’s ‘Evening Song’, a rare work for accompanied choir that was not commissioned. But it was one choral part song too many for me. This would have been the moment to use the four soloists, who had sung so little.
Next came ‘Sure on this Shining Night’, a poem setting by the American composer and mystic Morten Lauridsen. Shawn Condon was on home turf now; the dynamic indications were clear, the tuning mostly excellent. It was followed by another popular American, Eric Whitacre (b.1970). ‘The Seal Lullaby’ was originally composed for wind ensemble. Whitacre is beloved of choirs, and it’s likely that no one ever lost money by programming him, although I find him light to the point of weightlessness. But the choir sang with conviction.
And still two more works to go! Arthur Sullivan’s ‘The Long Day Closes’ came next. This too would have been great to give the soloists (although there was already too much music for one concert). Or not sing it at all. Still, there were some great low notes from the second basses.
Finally, the last work in the programme, David Hamilton’s arrangement of ‘Hine, e Hine’, a lovely thing that benefited from the assistance of the soloists singing with the choir. Alas, it was over too fast. All in all, a delightful concert that would have been better if it had been shorter.