Cantoris’s enterprising coupling of Gounod and CPE Bach

CHARLES GOUNOD – St. Cecilia Mass

Cantoris Chamber Choir, with the Queen’s Closet
Thomas Nikora (conductor)

St.Peter’s-on-Willis, Wellington

Saturday 18 May 2024

Saint-Saëns thought the St Cecilia Mass was Gounod’s best work. But I’d never heard it before, so I was interested to go along to Cantoris’s first concert for 2024 to hear it. As for the ‘Bach Magnificat’, I was excited to find it wasn’t the familiar Magnificat in D major by JS Bach but a completely different work by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, supported by the early music ensemble The Queen’s Closet.

The St Cecilia Mass was written to be performed on St Cecilia’s Day, 22 November1855, at St Eustache Church in Paris, where they customarily presented a new mass setting each St Cecilia’s Day. It was originally scored for enormous forces: a large orchestra including six harps, an organ, a four-part chorus, and three soloists (STB). Last night Cantoris gave us Jonathan Berkahn on the organ of St Peter’s Church, as busy as you might imagine, as well as the chorus and three soloists.

It is a big Romantic work, even without the six harps, full of impressive effects. The three soloists usually sing in a trio or duets, rather than taking solo arias, which gave an opportunity to assess them together as well as separately. Soprano Caroline Burchell has a lovely voice, well suited to Gounod’s requirements, silvery and expressive, with plenty of power. There was a slight risk at times that she could overwhelm the light, flexible tenor of Herbert Zielinski, a young chorister who was tenor lead in the 2021-22 Secondary Students’ Choir and currently sings in the National Youth Choir. But she kept things in check. Zielinski sounded most interesting in duets with the bass soloist, Mark Bobb, an opera singer and teacher: together their voices blended with an unusual timbre.

Conductor Thomas Nikora had the forces of the choir mostly under control, although there was a bit of rough tuning from time to time. If Gounod had been directing operations, he would have asked for a more uniform ensemble sound – and an orchestra to support them. With harps.

This is an interesting work. The text setting is slightly quixotic (or perhaps reflects mid-nineteenth century French practice), with a Kyrie in which tenor and bass do much of the work, a slightly plodding Credo; and the ‘non sum dignus’, which is usually said before the Eucharist, tacked on to the end of the Agnus Dei (it is usually not attached) before a final Amen. The Offertory was an organ solo in this version, with a distinctly spooky quality. I’d love to hear the work performed again with larger forces.

CPE Bach was only nine years old when he heard his father’s Magnificat performedfor the first time, in 1723. Ten years later, Bach revised it and put it into the key of D major. Carl Phillipp Emanuel, the second surviving son of that remarkable family, wrote his own Magnificat in 1749, just in time for the old boy to hear it. But he kept revising it until 1786, which makes it an interesting record of the change from Baroque to Classical style. CPE was a prolific keyboard composer, but the Magnificat is his most substantial choral work.

Last night Cantoris was supported by The Queen’s Closet, an early music ensemble,with Gordon Lehany on first violin, Antonia Grant on second, Samuel Berkahn viola, Tomos Christie cello, and the versatile Jonathan Berkahn on spinet. This was in place of a Baroque orchestra comprising two transverse flutes, two oboes, two horns, bassoon, plus three trumpets and timpani in addition to the strings and continuo. That would have been ruinously expensive at today’s prices, but gorgeous.

Once again, it was interesting to hear CPE ring the changes. He was definitely not a pale imitator of his father. Apart from ‘Deposuit’, which they both gave to the tenor (CPE also adding the alto), the disposition of soloists and chorus was quite different. ‘Quia respexit’ was given to the soprano soloist, who sounded fabulous. It sat very well in her voice. Sadly ‘Quia fecit mihi magna’ falls to the tenor soloist, and the young singer managed the runs gamely but struggled with some of the wider leaps. The bass soloist showed what he could do with ‘Fecit potentiam’. Mark Bobb has an operatic sound and the necessary fearlessness. ‘Deposuit’ started with the tenor, with the alto being added.

What a delightful singer Helene Page is, poised and assured, with lovely tone and phrasing. Tenor and alto sang in close harmony, and sounded beautiful together. CPE gave ‘Suscepit Israel’ to the alto, which Helene Page sang beautifully, blending sensitively with the instrumental support.

This Magnificat has relatively little for the choir to do (only the first movement, the fourth, with soprano and alto, and the last two). Moreover, the chorus writing is mostly in four parts, with divisi tenors and basses at times for effect (whereas JS Bach wrote his for SSATB). But it is a most attractive and interesting work, and I would love to hear it again.