“Sing Joyfully” sings its name – The Tudor Consort’s 400th-year anniversary tribute to William Byrd

The Tudor Consort presents:

A 400th Year Celebration of the works of William Byrd (c.1540-1623)

Mass for Four Voices
– Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus & Benedictus, Agnus Dei
Ave Verum Corpus
Ne irascaris Domine satis
– Civitas Sancti tui
The Great Service
– Kyrie, Venite, Credo, Benedictus, Te Deum
Praise our Lord all ye Gentiles
Sing Joyfully

The Tudor Consort
– sopranos:  Erin King, Jane McKinlay, Melanie Newfield, Rebecca Stanton
–  altos:  Emma Drysdale, Alexander Granville, Tahlia Griffis. Kassandra Wang
–  tenors:  John Beaglehole, Peter Liley, Joshua Long, Herbert Zielinski
–  basses:  Brian Hesketh, Joshua Jamieson, Matthew Painter, Isaac Stone

Music Director;  Michael Stewart

Instrumentalists (The Great Service)
–  Cornetti:  Andrew Weir, Paula Weir
–  Sackbuts:  Jonathan Harker, Byron Newton, Peter Maunder, Luke Spence

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul, Molesworth St.

Saturday, 1st July 2023

Being a music-lover but still made occasionally aware of certain “gaps” in my knowledge of and love for various musical eras and their characteristic styles, I was forced to confront head-on such a one of these unchartered spots over recent days when asked to review a concert presented by the Tudor Consort, one devoted to the music of William Byrd on the occasion of the latter’s 400th anniversary. I make this statement knowing fully well that my opinions as expressed below of the quality of music-making I heard at the scheduled concert inevitably consist more of the fruits of nascent revelation than of prior knowledge or experience. Rather than striving to somehow “paper over” such gaping holes in my musical education I thought I would readily acknowledge my defects and seek to present my “delight in discovery”, hopefully, in the process of doing so conveying a measure of the extent to which the performers brought the music to glorious life for everybody present, including the uninitiated, such as myself.

Happily, much of the background information relating to the concert was provided in a pre-concert talk by the Tudor Consort’s Director Michel Stewart, who outlined some of the flavour of the times in which William Byrd lived and worked as a musician and a composer in England. It was of course a period dominated by religious and political upheavals brought about by both the Reformation and the changes in succession to the English throne, resulting in the older Roman Catholicism having to eventually give way to Protestantism as decreed by the Monarch of the time. Byrd, who was a devout Catholic, found himself unable to publicly practise his faith when the 1559 Act of Uniformity forbad the celebration of the Catholic liturgy. He was fortunate, however, that Queen Elizabeth I, who had taken the throne and firmly established the Protestant Church of England, was herself a music-lover and musician, and was at first tolerant of both Byrd’s and his fellow-composer (and former teacher) Thomas Tallis’ religious beliefs. Both composers were members of and wrote for the prestigious Chapel Royal, Byrd continuing to produce a substantial amount of English liturgical music, among which can be found numerous English Anthems, and “The Great Service”. The latter was not published in Byrd’s lifetime, about which there has been considerable conjecture – was this due to potential difficulties for Byrd caused by increasing anti-Catholic sentiment, even though the work was probably his most significant contribution to the Anglican liturgical world? He was, as well, engaged in writing settings of the Latin mass after he’d left London, removing himself from the scrutiny of the Queen’s “informers” regarding his participation in and contributions to secret Catholic rites of worship.  He continued to write settings in English as well, both sacred and secular, though his music’s Latin texts frequently made allusions to the plight of the Jews in Biblical times, relating the same to the English Catholic community’s present privations. After living for a while at Harlington, in Middlesex, he eventually moved his family to Stondon Massey in Essex where he died 400 years ago.

Michael Stewart drew our attention to several examples of what the evening’s programme would present us with, beginning with the “Catholic” first half, and mentioning in particular an item which the Consort had performed in their inaugural 1986 concert – the five-part motet Ne Irascaris Domine – Civitas sancti tui (Be not angry, O Lord…). The text consists of verses from Isaiah (64:9,10) interpolated into the Mass, an example of text derived from Scripture which could easily pertain to the situation of Catholics wanting to practise their faith in England at Byrd’s time. Another, earlier interpolation in the mass was the motet “Ave Verum Corpus”, for centuries a “forbidden pleasure” in England, being a Catholic work, but more recently a staple of what one might describe as almost interdenominational worship – and at Evensong, no less (all of this according to what I’ve recently read about the work!)

Regarding the concert’s “Anglican” second half, Stewart spoke of Byrd’s “The Great Service”, telling us that the evening’s performance would be augmented by instrumentalists in places (along with an accompanying organ, there were to be cornetts and sackbuts) as was sometimes done (and, according to some accounts I read, to the “indignation” of some more Puritan listeners!).  A particular feature of tonight’s performance was that, as well as two cornetts, it featured no less than four sackbuts accompanying the singers, and (as one of the players told me) was the first time so many of these particular instruments had been assembled for a concert in this country!

So it was with a good deal of anticipation that we awaited the arrival of the Tudor Consort voices for the concert’s first half, sixteen soloists in groups of four per single part, to firstly perform for us Byrd’s Mass for four voices. This was probably the first of his three Mass settings to be written, but the exact dates are unknown, due to the composer’s reluctance to publish these works in complete form at a time when such pro-Catholic activity was a potentially punishable offence. This also explains in part the simpler resources required for this music compared with those compositions by the composer for the Chapel Royal.

The opening Kyrie was exquisitely realised, sounded with a delicacy that suggested an awakening – with the following Christe came an increased sense of space, not merely from the cathedral acoustic, but a kind of widening of vocal possibility, as if after an awakening came a flowering.  The Kyrie’s return imparted a strengthening of this resolve, and a plaintiveness whose edge could be felt amidst the sound’s beauty, fully drawn by the end.

A tenor solo introduced the Gloria, an announcement followed by some concerted vocal excitement, even, I felt, a touch of urgency here and there, the lines thankfully binding together at Gratias agimus tibi, and building joyfully towards the soprano line at Deus Pater Omnipotens. The voices brought out Byrd’s different portrayal of Jesus Christi as unigenite (Only Son) and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) – in other words as a sacrifice! And what ritualistic beauty and wonderment the ensemble imparted to Qui tollis peccata mundi, an amalgam of radiance and faith, all the more intensified by Qui sedes a dextram Patris, with its sense of majesty. By contrast, the juices start to run with  Quoniam tu solus sanctus, building up to exhilaration at Cum Sancto Spiritu right through to the conclusive Amen!

It seems as though Byrd intended his movements of his masses to be interspersed with other material, perhaps randomly, perhaps in conjunction with various feast-days on the liturgical calendar, Whatever the case, the Tudor Consort chose firstly the motet Ave Verum Corpus, written by Byrd for the feast of Corpus Christi, a holy day outlawed in England following the Reformation, but still celebrated secretly – which circumstance would have given rise to its insertion in a Mass, as here. Its beautifully harmonic blend of tones at the opening has a resonance and richness befitting the sacredness of the image – Ave verum corpus natum – Hail, the true body! – while the voices’ incisive, pinpoint attack upon the words at Cuius latus perforatum (from whose pierced flank) readily pierced the flesh of one’s listening sensibility. And what a touching contrast we heard with O dulcis, O pie, O Jesu Filii Mariae, the lovely thirds of Miserere mei giving a real sense of mercy implored. The repeat of O Dulcis, and Miserere Mei was even more “covered” and replete with intent, which the defiant and resolute Amen strengthened splendidly.

The Credo, announced by the tenor once again, began with the women’s voices in a canon-like opening exchange which filled out as the men’s voices joined the mosaic-like textures of Patrem omnipotentem  and the abstracted word-painting of visibilium omnium et invisibilium with celestial assurance. I relished all over again my distant but still well-remembered delight in “bouncing” some of these words back and forth as a child in our penny-plainchant parish church version – Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine, Deum verum, de deo vero…. Such quasi-celestial pleasures were brought down to earth at Qui propter nos homines, the singers allowing a haze of luminosity to descend from the heights via a lovely cascading soprano line at de caelis. The almost lullabic Et in carnatus est was beautiful, culminating in a swaying factus est from the sopranos and tenors, before the pitiless announcement of the Crucifixus  darkened the spirits. What relief the announcement Et resurrexit tertia die here brought! And how thrillingly visceral was Et ascendit in coelum, along with the roulades of tone that accompanied Sedet ad dexteram Patris, and the reassuring cujus regni non erit finis.  Then the ceremonial declaration of faith at “Et unam sanctam catholicam Ecclesiam” gave all the more more life and overt purpose to the final Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum, which made leaps and bounds through Et vitam venturi saeculi to a resounding “Amen”.

By way of another break from the liturgical narrative we then heard the motet Ne Iracaris Domine – Civitas sancti tui (Be not angry, O Lord…), whose commentary regarding the plight of the Jewish people at the hands of  the oppressors would have resonated in the hearts and minds of Byrd’s fellow Catholics under a similar yoke of oppression. It received a performance from the Consort which, in my humble opinion produced the most beautifully sustained singing of the evening – begun by the male voices, the opening “Be not angry, O Lord” registered as a gentle lament rising from the depths, the words repeated with the entry of the women’s voices, the music growing in intensity as the “iniquities” of privation are mentioned, and bursting forth at Ecce, respice (the building’s resonances wondrously activated at this point!), continuing the beseechment with populus tuus omnes nos (Behold, we are all your people!) – everything long-breathed and intertwined, as if the whole world was raising its voice! The motet’s second part, Civitas sancti tui (Your Holy City),refers to the resultant desolation of Jerusalem (Zion), the music imparting more sorrow than anger throughout, and in places seeming to evoke memories of past glories and the iniquities that have brought desolation to the place of these glories.

I thought the Sanctus strangely austere and lament-like at first, the singers solemnly and intensely drawing us into the ceremonial realm, with the Hosanna at last bringing us some relief! All very beautiful……similarly, the Benedictus invited us to contemplate, at first, the “one who comes”, before giving voice to joyful energies with the concluding Hosanna. The Agnus Dei seemed like an extended return to the opening Kyrie at first, with the women’s voices beautifully filling out the two-part textures; but the music morphs into perhaps the most moving part of the whole Mass with the intensification of tones and textures towards the third Agnus Dei and its beautiful Dona Nobis Pacem at the end.

This was, as previously outlined, very much a concert of two halves, and it was possible to sense a different kind of excitement regarding the Consort’s presentation of the second part, featuring Byrd’s “The Great Service”, in addition to two “interpolations”, the 1611 “Praise Our Lord all ye Gentiles”, and the earlier anthem “Sing Joyfully”, both written for use in the Anglican service. What galvanised one’s interest was the appearance of the instrumentalists, whose task was to accompany those parts of “The Great Service” performed this evening – incidentally, two of these, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, were omitted, to be included instead at the Cathedral‘s Evensong service the following day.

Byrd wrote the work for the Chapel Royal, which accounts for the elaboration of the writing, both vocal and instrumental, compared with that for his Masses – he therefore had sufficient scope for six, eight and even ten-part counterpoint, often contrasting solo and small-ensemble lines with the larger groupings for dramatic and structural effect. According to what I’ve read Byrd was not averse to sackbuts and cornetti accompanying the voices alongside the organ, though various commentaries and reviews seem to differ on this point. My only comment as to their use in this present context is that their presence certainly contributed to the overall magnificence of the music’s sound, but made it even more difficult for the actual words to be deciphered – in the voluminous spaces of Wellington Cathedral, size (i.e., the number of performers) is one of the considerations which does seem to really matter!

For this reason most of the second half was a markedly different listening experience to that heard before the interval – the exceptions were the aforementioned “interpolations”, the texts of both of which I could follow more readily, as with the Mass and the motets we heard before the interval. In a less cavernous acoustic I would imagine we could experience (and enjoy) much of the added magnificence of the wind-and-brass sounds without sacrificing the clarity of the words to the same extent. After the deliciously light and airy opening “O come, let us sing unto the Lord”, the full range of voices and instruments in most of the other movements created an overwhelming impression which one simply had to relish for its own, (admittedly at times thrilling!) sonorous qualities. The sound by no means lacked variety, but the contrasts in tone and colour I found difficult to pinpoint in the text. I wasn’t alone in this as my companion similarly attested afterwards to a strain throughout in making out where the voices had gotten up to in the ensembled passages.

The difference became obvious with the following unaccompanied Praise our Lord all ye Gentiles, in which the singing and word-pointing had such an infectious sense of unbridled energy throughout, as if “all ye peoples” around the globe were helping to make it spin, the final “Amen” being particularly vertiginous for all concerned, with the acoustic actually heightening the sense of abandonment.

Next was the Creed, introduced by the tenor, then with voices uplifted at first to God alone, then with the sounds opened up to creation at And of all things visible and invisible  (my familiarity with the text here helping to identify the words!).The Almighty was suitably solemnised at God of Gods, Light of Light, Very God of very God, the voices then descending and imparting a more human voice at who, for us men, then celebrating at and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost. The voices beautifully resonated the words He suffered and was buried,  the day of resurrection “grown” within the music as if by divine will, as was the following and ascended into heaven, drawn upwards by the airborne voices.

I found both the Benedictus and  the Te Deum from “The Service” more difficult to follow through unfamiliarity with each of the texts, despite having the words to hand, though there were compensations afforded by the music’s kaleidoscopic textures, the constant shifting of form, pattern and colour in the music making for endless fascination, especially as these qualities were so writ-large in such a listening environment, if at the expense of the words’ clarity. The instruments themselves never obtruded in an unseemly or ill-balanced sense – as an orchestral texture they blended richly and colourfully, providing a fascinatingly flavoured contrast with the other music in the evening’s programme. Perhaps because of my relative inexperience with these genres, I had no “puritan” objection whatever to the presence of the instruments, which, if performed in a less resonant location would have given more ambient space to word-sounding while still making a world of difference.

Happily, I also took away from the concert the impression made by the programme’s second-to-last item, the name of which, incidentally, Sing Joyfully, was  given to the presentation by the group – an impression of joyful immersion in singing and musicality from all concerned, and of communication to listeners via sound, aspect and movement. I had an opportunity to briefly talk with one of the singers afterwards whose only complaint regarding what they’d done was that they were only getting one chance at performing the music – quite apart from any idea that they might be able to “improve” things that didn’t quite come off as hoped, the singer lamented the “end” of the experience as it was, rather than having the opportunity to do something all over again that was so wonderful! Apart from the sadness at it coming to such an abrupt end, I thought the sentiment paid a richly-deserved tribute to the composer and his music and to the excellence of what was achieved by those who took part – Tudor Consort Director, Michael Stewart, and his wonderful singers and (for the second half) instrumentalists. It’s a tribute I’m pleased to be able to endorse as a listener new to this music and duly captivated by the beauty and lasting relevance of it all.


“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.

Musical gems at lunchtime

I Tesori (Treasures) – The Queen’s Closet with Pepe Becker (soprano)

Sharon Lehany (hoboy) – Gordon Lehany (baroque trumpet, recorder) – Peter Maunder (sackbut, recorder) – Jane Young (baroque ‘cello) – Kristina Zuelicke (harpsichord)

Lunchtime concert at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Friday 7 August, 12:45pm

My horoscope for Friday 7th August predicted that I “may get tempted to steal a short vacation in the midst of work” and, as it turned out, this prediction was indeed fulfilled when I entered St. Paul’s Cathedral at 12:40pm to thank God it was (finally) Friday.

It was then and there that soprano Pepe Becker and the local early music group The Queen’s Closet presented a delightful selection of 18th century Italian arias, all for soprano voice, basso continuo, and obbligati wind instruments, and all about the varied allurements and ensnarements of love, attraction, and associated drastic emotional torments, mood and hormonal fluctuations (my horoscope also mentioned that “a golden opportunity is likely to present itself on the romantic front, so be prepared to seize it.” However, that chalice thankfully passed me by).

The settings by Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747) of amatory Italian verse were a real discovery for me at this concert. I for one had never encountered this music before. Afterwards, following my curiosity, I found out that Bononcini enjoyed considerable success in London during the 1720s and that his popularity rivalled that of Georg Friedrich Händel.  In the political life of the city at the time, the Whig party apparently favoured Händel, while the Tories favoured Bononcini, and their competition inspired the epigram by John Byrom that made the phrase “Tweedledum and Tweedledee” famous:

Some say, compar’d to Bononcini
That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle
Strange all this Difference should be
‘Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee

So was it Bononcini and Händel whom Alice met through the looking glass so many years later in 1871? And could Bononcini be of any help or interest to our centre-right politicians at the moment?

The concert opened with an aria by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) for soprano, baroque trumpet and basso continuo – Mio tesoro per te moro  (Darling I would die for you) – that unfolded as a lyrical dialogue between the voice and the trumpet, both reverberating to great effect in the large space of the cathedral. It was an achievement of the early music revival in the 1980s, and of Dame Emma Kirkby in particular, to popularise a vocal aesthetic centred around natural declamation, minimal and finely controlled vibrato, agile coloratura and sensitivity to the words of the song. Wellington’s Pepe Becker is a specialist in this beautiful style of singing and demonstrated throughout the concert how well it serves the interpretation of this wonderful Italian baroque music.

The second aria, Alme Ingrate (Ungrateful soul) was composed by Emperor Joseph I of Austria (1678-1711) who was Bononcini’s employer during Bononcini’s time in Vienna from 1696 to 1711.  Emperor Joseph must have learned a thing or two from his Italian court musician. The aria is a duet between soprano voice and obbligato sackbut (an early form of the trombone). Compositions featuring voice and obbligato sackbut or trombone had reached an artistic peak in the Hapsburg Empire and at the Imperial Viennese Court at the time. Pepe Becker with Peter Maunder on the sackbut demonstrated the attraction of this combination with the smooth velvety sound of the sackbut melting together with the crystalline timbre of Pepe Becker’s voice.

Two arias by Bononcini followed, the first featuring the voice accompanied by the baroque oboe and the recorder. The instrumental parts were played dexterously by Sharon Lehany on the baroque oboe and Peter Maunder (who had quickly exchanged his sackbut for a recorder). The oboe and recorder were nicely balanced, again showing the great advantage of performing this repertoire on original or replica instruments of the day: the sound of the recorder can otherwise have trouble being clearly heard over modern instruments. Period instruments are lighter and allow for greater transparency in drawing out the lines of the music without any one voice inadvertently predominating. The basso continuo, capably provided by Kristina Zuelicke on harpsichord and Jane Young on baroque ‘cello gave a clear and nuanced the impetus to the aria, allowing the singer also to savour some delicious chromatic moments in her line. Jane Young’s baroque ‘cello has a beautifully carved lion’s head scroll, prompting her to give the instrument a name: Walter. The next Bononcini aria was again for voice and baroque trumpet, played by Gordon Lehany. This aria depicted love as form of ardent yet feigned hostility, as if Mars and Venus did not want ever to admit that they actually like each other. There was a sense of heroism and defiance in this aria with fanfare patterns, exquisite ornamentation in the vocal part, and some nicely imitated bugle calls from voice, trumpet and their echoes from somewhere or everywhere within the cathedral’s cavernous space. The valveless baroque trumpet is a fractious beast, and sometimes it was evident that it is hard to tame.

A lively ciaconna aria by Agostino Steffani (1654-1728) followed that seemed so cheerful and joyful in character considering that the aria’s base text was about jealousy and betrayal. The two obbligati recorders did not seem to be accusing one another of anything but seemed to chirp, flit and scurry about nimbly together like two spirited fantails. The basso continuo group, with Walter leading the charge, held their ground excellently throughout the brisk repeated ostinato figure, Jane Young every now and again placing a subtle emphasis to keep everyone in time.

A further bracket of Bononcini arias closed the programme. The aria Nel mio seno va serpendo was, of all the presented arias, the only real sorrowful lament. In a minor key, the aria interwove the expressive lines of the voice and the baroque oboe, drawing in particular on the oboe’s plaintive qualities.  The concert concluded joyfully with all instrumentalists accompanying the singer with assured vibrancy in a bold and triumphant display of vocal virtuosity and instrumental skill, giving the audience a final flavour of Bononcini’s achievement as a composer and demonstrating how, back in the day, he really was considered Händel’s only serious rival. What further treasures lie here? I wonder.

A dramatic and sharply-focused St.John Passion from Nota Bene and the Chiesa Ensemble at St Mary of the Angels

JS BACH – St.John Passion BWV 245
Presented by Nota Bene Choir and the Chiesa Ensemble
Directed by Peter Walls

Evangelist – Lachlan Craig / Christ – Simon Christie
Soprano – Nicola Holt / Alto –  Maaike Christie-Beekman
Tenor –  LJ Crichton / Bass: William King
Pilate – Chris Whelan / Servant – Patrick Geddes
Ancilla – Katie Chalmers / Peter – Peter McClymont

Nota Bene Choir (Peter Walls – Music director)
The Chiesa Ensemble (Rebecca Struthers – leader)

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

Sunday 14th April, 2019

Of four Scriptural “Passion” settings associated in some way or another with Johann Sebastian Bach, two have been fully “authenticated”, the larger St.Matthew Passion, and the smaller, more intense and visceral St.John Passion – while two others, settings of the other evangelists’ accounts of Jesus’ death, are either spurious or recyclings of lost material. Bach undertook the St.John Passion during his first year as director of church music in Leipzig, and the work was first performed in 1724, though not in St Thomas’s Church where Bach was stationed, but in the St Nicholas Church, it being customary to alternate such services yearly between the two principal Leipzig churches. Bach’s predesessor in Leipzig, Johann Kuhlau, had directed his own St.Mark Passion at St.Thomas’s Church three years before, in 1721, setting in motion a “Leipzig tradition” of presenting such works.

Bach himself heard his work only four times, on various Good Fridays during his tenure as “Thomaskantor” at Leipzig, and, like a good baroque composer, continued to make additions and revisions to the work right up to the last performance he directed, in 1749 – scholarly opinion is that the first (1724) and last “versions” have the closest relationship to one another of the four. The way these presentations were written was to incorporate a sermon in the action as the “high point” of the Good Friday service – though any preacher of the time would have probably viewed his place amid such a magnificent musical framework as Bach provided with mixed feelings – inspiration aplenty, but with awe and even misgiving in the face of such heartfelt, all-pervading expression!

The St.John retelling of Christ’s betrayal, trial, crucifixion and death is shorter, sharper and more brutally told than in the longer, more reflective St.Matthew Passion, (which was written three years afterwards). The earlier work begins more dramatically, too, with the opening chorus bursting in amid piteous instrumental lamentations, calling on God to display his might and glory throughout his suffering and humiliation, before the action hurries towards the scene of Jesus’ betrayal and Peter’s denial of his Master. It’s all vividly characterised, the crowd a howling mob baying for blood, and the Roman Governor, Pilate, vividly prevailed upon by the high priests and the mob to condemn him to death – the interactions between personalities and groups give off surges of energy with the only respite being the occasional aria or chorus, all the more affecting for their quiet wisdom and reflective beauties and sorrows.

In performances of works such as this, I’m always struck by their sense of  “inclusiveness”, brought about through the use of a great range of voices to bring the story to theatrical and dramatic life, as if almost anybody could have been randomly “caught up” in these events of that time. In fact I’m often reminded of numerous Good Friday services of my childhood, during which the Passion story was enacted in spoken form by various clergy and congregation members of the church I attended, all of whom I knew in their “ordinary, everyday” guises, but who were, for those brief sequences, using those familiar voices and gestures to convey something of the essence of these so very archetypal characters in the story – followers, officials, soldiers and onlookers, all indelibly touched by their involvement, however involuntary or otherwise, in these great events.

Each of the voices in this presentation, though varied in tone, timbre, weight and colour, was strongly united in the purpose and direction of conveying the story – and, as we in the audience/congregation were as children listening to an absorbing tale, giving us a sense of their total involvement essential to the task. How important, therefore, were those singers who took the “lessser” roles in Part One, the bystanders and onlookers who were suddenly “drawn in” to the drama, taking each of us with them – Katie Chalmers and Patrick Geddes as servants in the garden where Jesus was betrayed, commenting on Jesus’s disciple Peter’s association with his master, and Peter McClymont as the unfortunate Peter refuting their comments, their voices striking the right note of righteous speculation and subsequent rebuttal, an almost “social-media-like” interaction as an impulse in the drama.

Even more significant and engaging was the contribution of Chris Whelan’s Pilate, throughout Part Two,  the voice strong and sufficiently authoritative, but most importantly conveying the Roman governor’s ambivalence regarding any judgement he felt compelled to make regarding Jesus’ fate, while struggling to maintain what dignity he could – his final rebuff to the Jewish priests of  “Was ich geschrieben habe….” (What I have written, I have written) regarding the “insignia” on the cross above Jesus’s head, effectively silencing further protest.

As for Simon Christie’s authoritative and sonorous Jesus, one felt  from the singer’s very first notes an overwhelming sense of identification with the character’s enormous burden of responsibility, the “sins of the world” as exemplified by the hostility and inhumanity of most of those around him throughout these sequences. His voice was an excellent “foil” for that of the Evangelist’s in this performance, Lachlan Craig, whose spare, lithe tones I found took a little getting used to, but whose ability to vary his instrument’s qualities in the services of the narrative soon won me over. Whatever the mood or mode, his delivery, be it biting and cutting when characterising the crowd scenes, piteous and emotion-laden in conveying the anguish of Simon Peter in the wake of the latter’s betrayal of Jesus, or tender when describing the ministrations of both Jesus’ mother and Mary Magdalene, was equal to the task of bringing to us the essence of whatever “moment” was paramount.

Each of the four singers impressed with their heartfelt identifications relating to the varying moods of their solo sequences. Nicola Holt’s radiant soprano voice created a veritable halo of sound which seemed to me to fill the church’s precincts in glorious fashion, the occasional moment of strain incorporated wholeheartedly in the sound’s tapestry of emotion in heartfelt style – her bright, eager, “Ich folge dir” (I follow thee) exemplified her intense commitment to the words and sense of the music’s burning zeal. Tenor L.J.Crichton used his brightly-focused voice to fearless effect in “Ach mein Sinn” (Ah, my Soul) despite touches of strain in places, singing intelligently and tackling the difficulties with great credit – his later ” Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken” (Consider how his bloodstained back) was more easily and mellifluously essayed, giving notice of the inherent beauty in his tones, and his further potentialities as a performer.

Alto Maaike Christie-Beekman instantly drew us into a world of expressive pity with her “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden” (From the bonds of my sins), her focus riveting, and her tones rich and engaging throughout, the singer’s gift for characterisation coming into its own in the later “Es ist vollbracht!” where her deeply moving tones of resignation were suddenly tossed to one side in a frisson of jubilation at the words “Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht” (The Hero from Judah triumphs), before returning to the meditative opening – a great moment! Just as potent and moving in expressiveness was the singing of William King, whose lovely arioso “Betrachte, meine Seel”  (Consider, my Soul) was put across with such sweet and mellifluous dignity, and whose dramatic, haunted rendition of  “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen” (Hurry, you tormented souls) with the chorus providing thrilling, split-second support, was a highlight of the performance. I liked, too, another “bass and chorus” item, the lullabic (though here a shade too quick for my tastes) “Mein teurer Heiland”, remarkable nevertheless in its expressive power.

That I’ve left the chorus, orchestra and music director Peter Walls to last and all together means that the credit for providing the performance’s tightly-knit and securely-delivered sense of ensemble and finely-judged expressive power can be equally and justly shared. St. John‘s palpable urgency and emotional directness depends upon the singers’ and players’ ability to “give” with focus and precision, and the result when achieved, as here, is sharply moving, both in situ and in the work’s aftermath. The chorus encompassed the work’s incredible range of feeling with total assurance, its depth of sorrow, its anger, its biting fury, its resigned pathos and its moments of beauteous lyricism – and much the same could be said for the work of the instrumentalists and the Chiesa Ensemble, both in the sum of their individual continuo contributions and the band’s whole, sonorous “presence”.

Conductor Peter Walls enabled what seemed to me a stunningly unified presentation which never faltered – I did think a  couple of tempi might have been “driven” somewhat less relentlessly (the very opening, for example), but it was all in line with a conception that enabled the work to speak volumes regarding aspects of humanity and transcendence of everyday existence. It all made for a deeply moving experience to which it seemed all who took part unreservedly participated and all who were present deeply appreciated.

NZSO’s Telemann/Handel presentation at Wellington Cathedral – spectacle before music?

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
TELEMANN – Water Music
HANDEL – Water Music

Vesa-Matti Leppänen (conductor and leader)
Members of The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul,
Molesworth St, Wellington

Friday, 1st February 2019

This was one of those concerts better described by the word “occasion” – yes, there was music, yes there were musicians, and yes, the music was played; but at every step of the way the emphasis of the event’s publicity, presentation and performance seemed to be more on the “occasional” nature of the pieces and their sounds rather than their actual substance.

Historically, this wasn’t at all inappropriate considering the performance origins of both Telemann’s and Handel’s work, each coming down to us with the title “Water Music” as a result of their indelible associations with and proximity to the stuff! Telemann’s work was written in 1723 for a banquet marking the centennial anniversary of the Hamburg Admiralty, celebrating Hamburg’s importance and success as a port on the River Elbe; while Handel’s music was composed for a “Water Party” given by King George I on the River Thames in London during July of 1717.

While Telemann’s work was played riverside but on dry land, Handel’s was actually performed “on the water” by 50 musicians on a barge for the pleasure of the King and his courtiers on another barge, accompanied by “a number of boats beyond counting” filled with people who wanted to listen! And in Hamburg it was reported that, during the playing of Telemann’s music, “….ships lying offshore did not fail to add to the festivities, some by the firing of cannon, and all by flying pennants and flags…”

It can be gleaned from all of this that spectacle and sensation were integral to both occasions – the music was praised in each instance by various reports, Telemann’s described as “admirable” and “beautiful” and “uncommonly well-suited to the occasion”, and Handel’s reported as finding such favour with the Monarch that “he caused it to be played three times in all, twice before and once after supper, even though each performance lasted an hour.”

Still, in each of these performance contexts the music seemed to have been merely part of a larger purpose, that of honouring an anniversary or celebrating a state of sovereignty. One couldn’t imagine conditions on either of these occasions being ideal for listening, purely and simply – but “listening” wasn’t the only thing on the agenda.

For myself, I would love to have been at each of these happenings, though not just for the music – I would relish the spectacle, the occasion and the sense of something out of the ordinary being enacted, as I’m sure those present both in Hamburg and in London those many years ago did. And it’s in that kind of spirit that I would go as far as saying that what the NZSO did in organising this concert worked on a certain level – it was certainly no “ordinary” affair, in a number of ways.

Orchestra Concertmaster, Vesa-Matti Leppanen, who also directed the players, was quoted in the publicity as saying, “The venues for 2019 (re baroque music) were chosen for their intimate settings, atmosphere and acoustics”……..well, I think everybody would have agreed the church had atmosphere aplenty – and it soon became obvious that there was, as well, a whale of an acoustic, however inappropriate! What was the first of the criteria again? – ah, yes! – well, the accompanying blurb stated that numerous baroque works were first performed in churches – which is true, except that many Baroque churches were in fact “intimate” venues and rarely if ever matched the dimensions of St.Paul’s in Wellington.

None of this seemed to deter what seemed a goodly crowd of spectators on Friday evening (despite the event clashing with the opening of the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson) – it was difficult to assess whether the church was actually full-to-bursting, but it appeared pleasingly well-attended. I thought the absence of any printed programme further underlined the overall “spectacle” concept, though Vesa-Matti did give us an outline of the content and order of the works after the musicians had taken the platform – which would have been particularly valuable in the case of the lesser-known Telemann.

I didn’t attend the orchestra’s “Back-to-Bach” Concert in 2018 at the same venue, but my colleague Rosemary Collier reviewed the concert, commenting favourably on the clarity of the sound from her particular vantage-point, a seat in the very front row. To my ears it seemed I wasn’t so lucky, this time round, arriving too late to get a place towards the front, and having to take one ten or so rows back.

I was well aware of the phenomenon (mentioned by my colleague) of experiencing greater sound-clarity when sitting as close as possible to the performers in such an acoustic – and, alas! – it seemed that I was too far back! –  while the slower music sounded grander and richer-toned than I’ve ever previously heard, and the quieter music was able to maintain some of its transparency, anything that was quick-moving over a certain dynamic level seemed to me to turn into confusion, the details repeatedly blurred by their own resonances.

Still, in several places the acoustic effect did work to some advantage, particularly in the Telemann suite of pieces, which employed characterisations of mythological deities and sequences of tone-painting evoking the actions of water in nature – two movements, the Sarabande (The sleeping sea-goddess Thetis) and the Menuet (The pleasant wind, Zephyr) – made a particularly ravishing effect, especially with the recorder-tones – and two others in particular ( No.7 The stormy Aeolus, and the Gigue – No.9 Ebb und Fluth, The Tides of Hamburg) created considerable physical excitement, both having crescendi that the acoustic seemed to “take charge of” and imbue the figurations with tempestuous versions of gleeful abandonment, the jumbled sounds creating even more of an impression of nature at work!

I must make mention, too, of the work’s final movement (The Jolly Sailors), the accented rhythms augmented here by timpani and then by what sounded like stamping feet, as a whole company of sea-farers seemingly joined in with the dance for the last few riotous bars! It should be emphasised that the orchestral playing under Vesa-Matti Leppänen’s direction throughout these vividly-characterised sequences was, by turns, sensitive, colourful, sharply-etched and full-blooded – one could HEAR something of the playing’s quality, even with the reverberation activated and cross-firing on all cylinders!

Much the same effect of quietly-augmented beauties alternating with rumbustiously jumbled energies marked, for me, the performance of the Handel Suites, far better-known, of course, than the Telemann work – unfortunately Telemann, unlike Handel, didn’t have a “Hamilton Harty” to further his music’s cause (Harty, a prominent early twentieth-century conductor/ composer, made popular arrangements for modern orchestra of both the “Water Music” and the “Royal Fireworks Music”, which held sway in concert halls until recent times, but are now largely ignored in favour of more “authentic” performances of Handel’s music).

For me, knowing the pieces well increased my frustration with the acoustic, as I’d never before heard such a lot of this music in such a muddle! Add to this the modern “authentic practice” penchant for choosing what seem fast-as-possible allegros as “what the composer probably wanted”, and the result was, in much of the quick music, a jolly-sounding but thoroughly confused noise! Again, for me what worked well were the more stately pieces and the quieter moments – the former acquired impressive resonance and body and sounded magnificent, while the latter engendered a “glow”, a kind of halo of ambience around the sounds which was pleasing to the ear – I thought in the former, the horns and trumpets made splendid ceremonial noises, and in the latter, the softer instruments (especially the recorders!) charmed and beguiled with their sometimes celestial, sometimes pastoral (and, one could imagine, “across-the-water”) tones.

Some brief notes about the playing, which, as in the Telemann, could hardly be faulted in terms of sheer elan in the quick music and tonal beauty and depth of feeling in the slower pieces – great work from the strings in the Overture, and beautiful playing from the oboe in both in the lead-up to the horn-dominated Allegro and the Andante interlude before he return of the Allegro, with the horns! I loved the sprightly Minuet (thrills and spills from the horns once again, and lovely minor-key wistfulness from the strings in the central section. The acoustic was also kinder to both the “jogtrot” Air (beautifully “held” notes from the horns in places) and to the quieter parts of the second Minuet, introduced by lovely horn fanfares. I feared at first for the scampering Bouree, but the acoustic imparted an almost “theatrical”air to the instruments’ rapid peregrinations, points crossed and curves negotiated with hair-raising skill!

The second group of pieces prominently featured the flute, the opening gentle and pastoral – Elgar’s remark “Something heard down by the river” could well apply here also….the “helter-skelter” aspect of the dance which followed made for too much confusion to my ears, but the “Heigh-ho, Anthony Rowley” character of the following Gigue had an infectious swing, and had sufficient light-and-shade between its sections to allow the rhythms to “tell”.

And so to the final, trumpet-led group of pieces, during which the cathedral spaces were made to rock and thunder with joy in certain places, never with enough clarity for the music’s sake, but undoubtedly rousing and properly blood-stirring in effect! As well as could be judged, the playing sounded terrific! – trumpets and horns had a fine time with their call-and-answer phrases in the well-known Hornpipe (introduced by a nifty piece of virtuoso violin-playing from the concertmaster), and the timpani made its presence felt with an arresting introductory drum-roll and some cataclysmic support for the music’s “grand processional” concluding sounds.

Wellington is struggling to find suitable places for music-making at present, with at least three major venues closed for “earthquake-strengthening” work. I’m not confident that the Cathedral is the “answer to a prayer” that some organisers seem to imagine it to be. For me, this was, as I’ve said, more an “occasion” than a satisfying concert experience, something to be truly marvelled at but not for purely musical reasons – too much of the music came out as a right, royal jumble! I’ve no wish to be a voice crying in the ambient wilderness – but there’s plenty of repertoire, and ensembles to perform it, that would, in my view, bring out the building’s marvellous qualities far more appropriately and mellifluously than what I heard here.

Rachmaninov’s Vespers richly resound with Inspirare and Mark Stamper at St.Mary of the Angels

RACHMANINOV – All Night Vigil (Vespers)

Maaike Christie-Beekmann (alto soloist)
Chris McRae (tenor/priest)
Ben Kubiak (bass/deacon)

Lisa Harper-Brown (vocal and language coach)

Mark Stamper (director)

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

Saturday, 7th April

Rachmaninov’s somewhat cumbersome title for this work (The Most Important Hymns of the “All Night Vigil”) though literally accurate, epitomises the composer’s characteristic self-effacing attitude to all of his musical undertakings. Fortunately for its deserved popularity, the piece has come to be commonly known as the “Vespers”, pure and simple (in the manner of Monteverdi’s similarly-titled work), however incorrect as a description – in fact Rachmaninov’s work contains settings of hymns from both Vespers and Matins in the Russian Orthodox Divine Service for the Feast of the Resurrection.

Matters of nomenclature apart (and far more importantly), this work provides a listening experience which touches on a number of fronts – aesthetic, visceral, emotional and devotional are words which come instantly to mind – and whose qualities leave little room or option for anything other than through-and-through involvement, especially in a live performance of this quality. I couldn’t help thinking of a similar kind of transportation of delight and wonderment I’d experienced in this same church with the aforementioned “Vespers” of Monteverdi, when performed in 2010 by home-grown forces, authentic instruments and all! Here, my feeling were replicated by a wondrous evocation of devotional intensity from a set of forces recreating a vastly different time and place, if with similarly mesmerising spiritual and emotional force.

For those who think of Rachmaninov’s music as consisting almost wholly of late-romantic throwback gestures belonging to and lamenting the passing of a bygone era, this work would come as a something of a surprise, indicating the extent of the composer’s intrinsic feeling for far older traditions than those of the nineteenth century. In fact the composer’s musical identification with the tradition gives a clue to the individuality of his work as a whole, its aspect of “continuous melody”, the sinuous nature of his themes, and their fervour and volatility. All of these characteristics can be found here interwoven with the actual traditional chant melodies used by the composer in the work, but in a way that results in a seamless exchange between tradition and originality.

The work was written at a time when sacred choral music was enjoying something of a renaissance in Russia – in fact a “New Russian School” of choral composers, including Kastalsky, Gretchaninoff and Chesnokov, inspired by the enthusiasm of the pedagogue and musicologist Stepan Smolensky, had created a new native style of orthodox church-inspired music. The latter had also been Rachmaninov’s tutor at the Moscow Conservatory, and was responsible for introducing him to the beauties of ancient Russian liturgical chant, which inspired the composer to dedicate his Vespers to the memory of Smolensky after completing the work in 1915.

Nine of the fifteen movements in the work are based on actual chant melodies, Rachmaninov drawing from three ancient chant traditions – “Znammemy” (the oldest form), Kiev School and Greek School. For the remaining six, the composer created what he called “conscious counterfeits”, original material based on the style of the existing chants. The text is in “Church Slavonic”, which is the Orthodox Church’s liturgical language. Incredibly the work was finished in the space of two weeks, and performed in 1915 as a benefit concert for war relief. According to my sources, it was performed on a number of further occasions that year, due to its initial success.

Having not heard the work “live” previously, I had recourse to recordings to prepare for this concert, principally to one I’d owned for a number of years, and generally regarded as a “classic” – this was the 1965 Melodiya recording featuring the USSR State Academic Russian Choir directed by Alexander Sveshnikov.  I wondered whether playing my LP repeatedly by way of familiarising myself with the work was going to do my reaction to Wellington’s Inspirare Choir any favours, especially as the Russian recorded performance had several instantly impressive qualities – a marked fervour of utterance expressed by way of an incredible dynamic range and a certain direct “raw” vocal quality which sounded like no other choir I’d heard, along with the deepest and richest sonority I could have imagined, thanks to those incredible Russian bass voices!

Rachmaninov himself made particular reference to these bass sonorities, replying to concerns expressed by the work’s first conductor, Nikolai Danilin, who reportedly told the composer that “such (bass) voices were rare as asparagus at Christmas” – to which Rachmaninov replied that he knew the voices of his countrymen, and that such basses could be found. This exchange was prompted by the fifth of the composer’s settings, one frequently occurring in European church music and known as “Nunc Dimittis”, and here concluding with a slow downward scale finishing on a low pianissimo B-flat. In fact the Inspirare basses at St.Mary’s on Saturday evening gave a creditable account of themselves in this passage, reaching the cavernous depths asked for by the composer, and holding onto their tones tenaciously, if without quite the resonance commanded by my recording’s Russian basses.

For the rest, I thought the performance by the Inspirare choir and the three solo singers truly magnificent, expressing the work’s breadth and depth with a beauty and solidarity of tone that itself paid ample tribute to the quality of the voices involved and the all-embracing direction of Mark Stamper. This was a performance which gave due attention to the ritualistic quality and context of the settings, using two solo voices in turn (deacon and priest) to begin the sequence, and tubular bells to introduce almost every one of the individual movements. And we in the audience were made to feel we shared the same similarly-lit spaces as the voices, which further enhanced the capacities of the performance to draw us into the music.

Besides the sonorous bass voice of Ben Kubiak as the deacon, and  the wondrously plangent tones of tenor Chris McRae, both of whom made various contributions at other places during the work, alto Maaike Christie-Beekman brought to her solos in “Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Gospoda” (Bless the Lord, O My Soul) unwavering, worshipful and warmly-projected tones, confidently mediating the exchanges between the beautiful, wind-blown voices of the women and the deep, almost oceanic undulations from the men.

As for the choir itself, from the very first surge of fervent impulse immediately after the beautifully floated opening “Amin”, with “Priidite Poklonimsya tsarevi nashemu Bogu” (Come, let us worship God, our King), we were drawn into a sense of worshipful communion with the voices, the ebb and flow of their tones gorgeously expressed and finely controlled by Mark Stamper. In the third hymn “Blazhen Muzh” (Blessed in the Man), I loved the growing intensities of the repeated trio of Alleluias, and the radiance of “Slava Otsu I Synu I Svyatomu Dukhu” (Glory to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) burst out most tellingly at the piece’s climax.

We heard the choir’s basses to telling effect in “Svete tikhyi” (Gladsome Radiance), the hymn introduced by Ben Kubiak’s bass solo, and beginning with high tenor voices, followed by the women, a lovely “layered” effect. The basses then initiated a stunningly low organ-pedal-like note, which then rose to mingle with the other voices  as the solo tenor burst forth fervently with “Poyem Otsa, Syna, I Svyatago Dukha” (We praise the Father, Son and Holy Spirit), Chris McRae’s vibrant timbres having to my ears a touch of authenticity in the context of this work. And how resonantly the choir’s voices held the slowly-devolving lines of the final “Tem zhe mir Tya slavit” (Hence the world glorifies Thee), with the basses making every ounce of breath tell.

Rachmaninov wanted the “Nunc Dimittis” from this work (No.5 – “Nyne Otpushchayeshi”) sung at his own funeral, professing it to be his favourite number from the work. After the tubular bells preluded the hymn, the women’s voices setting up a rocking motion, over which the tenor sang his plaintive melody, in places impassionedly, and to profoundly engaging effect. The basses then began a kind of canonic sequence at “Yezhe yesi utogoval” (Thou hast prepared) which gradually lit up all sections of the choir. After this, the sopranos then beautifully sounded an exposed “Svyet vodtkroveniye” (A light to shine upon…”) before returning, with the rest of the voices, to the rocking motion, and accompanying the tenor throughout his final sequence, the basses making their famous descent to a low B-flat, some actually completing the journey! In experiencing a performance such as this one could hear why Rachmaninov prized the work so much – most sadly his wish to have the work performed at his funeral was unable to be realised.

Sometimes separately performed, the “Ave Maria” (“Bogoroditse Devo, raduisya”) was here floated beautifully into being, the women’s voices effortlessly orbiting in different contrapuntal directions before the rest of the choir opened the choral floodgates and saturated the church with sound. A joyful bell phrase introduced “Slava v vysnikh Bogu” (Glory Be to God), the sopranos decorating the mezzo’s melody with bell-like entries of their own, the sounds gathering into a kind of cascade which dissolved as quickly as it formed, leaving rapt, prayer-like utterances mingling with the ensuing silences.

In the following “Khvalite imya Gospodne” (Praise the Name of the Lord”) I enjoyed the impression of listening to the voices of the Cherubim and Seraphim on high, as below, on earth, the faithful (the remainder of the choir) lift up their hearts with strong, definite statements, punctuating their utterances with Alleluias, the whole concluded by a peaceful, beautifully-rounded and long-breathed cadence. Rather more complex and narrative a structure was “Blagosloven yesi, Gospodi” (Blessed be the Lord), the text an annotated account of Mary Magdalene (unnamed) discovering Jesus’ tomb opened and inhabited by an angel on the first Easter Sunday morning, the music free and spontaneous-sounding, and the performance of both the tenor soloist and the choir filled with voiced wonderment and joy.

“Voskreseniye Khristovo videvshe” (Hymn of the Resurrection) was imbued with a sense of fresh hope, alternated with wonderment and fierce exultation, the performance giving us an abundance of varied intensities, the voices for the most part energetic and thrusting, while in places thoughtful and tremulous. Even more compelling was the following “Velichit dusha moya Gospoda” (Magnificat), which was a miracle of light-and-shade in its performance – the lower voices began the famous prayer  slowly and meditatively, after which the soprano voices here beautifully lifted their tones to the skies describing the “Cherubim and Seraphim-like exultations” with dance-like figurations, enchanting in their effect. Throughout the hymn, these angelic voices alternated with more earth-bound tones, heaven thus seeming to bestow approval to mankind through the Virgin’s prayer – the sequence ended with heavenly voices joining those on earth in quiet, worshipful rapture.

How rich and varied was the “Slavoslovive velikoye” (Gloria in Excelsis) here, with the lower women’s voices beginning the chanting and the soprano voices floating in over the top. The men’s voices continued the prayer at “Sedyai odesnuyu Otsa” (Thou who sits at the right hand of the Father), before the women’s voices took up the chant again after the “Amen”, reaching a lovely point of hiatus at “Budi, Gospodi, milost Tvoya na nas” (Let Thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us), and becoming almost recitative-like over the mesmerising repetitions of “Svyatyi” (Holy), which continued to the end.

Three short hymns brought the work to a close, the first an intense, richly-wrought outpouring, “Dnes spasenye miru” (The Day of Salvation), followed by a questioning bell sequence that seemed to require an answer from the voices! This came with “Voskres iz groba” (Thou didst rise), a serene outpouring of faith and confidence, the singing like a great exhalation of breath, truly depicting the text’s affirming statement “Thou hast given peace to the Universe”, a world drawn by the sopranos’ soaring, steadily-held line and the basses’ deep, rock-bottom tones. Finally,  heralded by an imposing extended bass solo from Ben Kubiak, the women’s voices appropriately took the lead for “Vzbrannoy Voyevode”  (O victorious leader), a Hymn to the Mother of God, the mezzo lines rich and energetic, and the sopranos gleaming, as throughout, richly upholstered by the lower voices, and concluding the whole work with a joyous outpouring of mellifluous tones and tingling energy.

Very, very great credit to all concerned with the venture, to Mark Stamper and his Inspirare singers and cohorts – what a work, and what a performance!


Imposing commemoration of 500th anniversary of Lutheran Reformation

Reformation: A Lutheran vespers service

Cantata Vespers by J S Bach

The Chiesa Ensemble (chamber ensemble of NZSO players)
Vocal soloists: Anna Sedcole – soprano, Rebecca Woodmore – alto, John Beaglehole – tenor, David Morriss – bass
Organ: Rick Erickson; harpsichord: Michael Stewart
The choir of Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul, directed by Rick Erickson

Violin Concerto in E, BWV 1042 (solo violin: Anna van der Zee)
Cantata: ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’, BWV 80
Motet: ‘Der Geisthilft unser Schwachheit auf’, BWV 226

Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul

Sunday 29 October, 5 pm

This was an ecumenical service, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, led by Bishop Mark Whitfield of the Lutheran Church of New Zealand, in the Anglican Cathedral, with choral support from the Cathedral choir. Earlier in the year, there was a commemorative service that involved the Roman Catholic Church at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, jointly hosted by Cardinal John Dew and Bishop Whitfield.

Ordinarily, such religious events would not attract the attention of the classical music reviewing industry. But all the important branches of the Christian church have paid attention to music and have been extremely important contributors to the composition and performance of music. In fact the music used by the early church survived, in the first few centuries mainly by oral tradition, and after the invention of notation, in manuscript records of plain chant and soon, of polyphony. The increasing sophistication of music through the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance was almost entirely thanks to the church in (almost) all of its persuasions.

So it was probably no accident that Martin Luther who was one of many who sought to reform the character of Christianity, and the most significant one, breaking from the Catholic church, was an excellent musician who knew that his message would be most successfully disseminated with the help of music.  (We were reminded that the Church of England is not, strictly, a Protestant church, since its separation from Rome by King Henry VIII was almost entirely a matter of a break with Papal authority and the appropriation of the assets of religious houses, but not a matter of immediate or important doctrinal change).

And it was especially appropriate to mark this anniversary with the music of J S Bach who, as well as being perhaps the greatest composer in the western musical tradition, was certainly the greatest composer of religious music (ahem, careful! – Victoria, Palestrina?), most of which was for use in the Lutheran church.

So the service began with a ‘Prelude’, comprising the first two movements of Bach’s Violin Concerto in E, with Anna van der Zee as solo violinist. Its performance in the great reverberant space of the cathedral invested it with a particular spiritual dimension, where the virtually vibrato-less playing was given a human touch through its tonal undulations. It was a good idea to have the other two violinists and the violist standing, a gesture that seemed to draw attention to the chamber music-like performance. The second movement offered the opportunity to draw further attention to the beauties of the music and to the subtle effects produced by varying the weight of bowing during sustained notes.

It was followed by Rick Erickson’s performance of the chorale prelude, Ein feste Burg, on the digital organ (given the unavailability of the main cathedral organ): not too conspicuously different in terms of tonal quality, but not so capable of grand, imposing climactic moments; though perhaps less important given the amount of quite elaborate decoration with which it was clothed.

There followed a variety of Lutheran hymns of the 16th and 17th centuries and one based on a 3rd century Greek chant.

The next piece by Bach was his motet Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, which is the second of the six motets listed in the BWV, Bach catalogue. Much less familiar than Singet dem Herrn; Komm, Jesu, komm or Jesu, meine Freude, the performance was distinctive through the preponderance of high voices that were, naturally enough, especially striking in the acoustic. On the other hand, that meant that words (in the German of course) were not clearly articulated.

A setting of the Magnificat by the 16th century Italian composer Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi preceded the next Bach work, the complete cantata, ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’, BWV 80: no doubt the performance that was central to the entire Vespers service. It opened with the choral setting of the first verse, after which the four soloists took turns in the sequence of arias and recitatives. Beginning with the deeply impressive performance of ‘Alles, was von Gott geboren’ from bass David Morriss and soprano Anna Sedcole: his warmly illuminated, hers decorated ethereally, with a lovely cello obbligato.

The choral verse, featuring the familiar choral section, accompanied by trumpets and timpani, had the effect of anchoring the whole performance. Then tenor John Beaglehole’s recitative ‘So stehe dann bei Christi blutgefärbten Fahne’: much high lying, yet confident and accurate, and he was joined by alto Rebecca Woodmore in a lovely aria with the accompaniment of oboe(s), sounding deep and rich enough to be an oboe d’amore; her voice was splendidly firm and well placed.

Finally, the Offering was passed during the orchestra’s playing the last movement of the concerto, always a deeply felt yet high spirited piece.

The occasion no doubt proved an interesting and moving occasion for believers in the congregation, while the range of music, and not merely the Bach, offered a chance for all to gain an understanding of the musical context of the Lutheran Reformation.