Scrupulous and spirited choral concert from Netherlands Chamber Choir

New Zealand Festival of the Arts
Netherlands Chamber Choir conducted by Peter Dijkstra

Programme 1:
Brahms: Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen? Op 74 No 1
Three songs for a six-voice choir Op 42 (setting of poems by Brentano, Müller and Herder)
Bach Motet, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied,
Poulenc: Un sior de neige
Martin: Mass for Double Choir

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 7 March, 7:30 pm

The Netherlands Chamber Choir has a fine reputation in the more sophisticated realms of international choirs.

Brahms motet
I have to confess, as a lover of Brahms’s orchestral, piano and chamber music, that neither his Lieder nor his choral works have appealed to me greatly: especially the a cappella pieces.  Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen? (‘Why has light been given to the weary soul?’) is one of a pair of motets published in 1878 about the time of the second symphony and the second piano concerto: it should be capable of touching me more.

After its emphatic opening, the first line drops to piano and in its gloomy and slightly tortuous explorations of the emotions that surround death, it wends its way through sopranos, mezzos and so on, in canon, returning to the pleading ‘Warum?’ The rest of the stanza elaborates on the thought that those near death might actually rejoice.

The MFC might not have been the best space for it, as my feelings about its lack of gusto and animation might have been attributable to absence of any echo.

The later verses do offer more cheerful feelings: the third ‘Siehe wir preisen selig…’, is almost cheerful while the last stanza, drawn, I read, from the Epistle of James (5:11), offering consolation – at least to the deserving through their obedience to God.

It ends with a Bach-like chorale of Luther, which strikes a more compassionate note.

Brahms Lieder a cappella
A second group of songs, Op 46, Three songs for a six-voice choir shifted the tone to the more familiar realm of German Romantic poetry, to the world of Schubert and Schumann, and the choir captured their simplicity and unpretentiousness. The three poems were by Brentano (‘Abendständchen’), Müller (the poet of Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise: ‘Vineta’) and Herder (‘Darthulas Grabesgesang’ – burial song). The material of Vineta rang bells, a gentle Lied in triple-time that celebrated the sounds of bells from a sunken city in the ocean depths; Debussy’s Cathédrale engloutie?; but unlike Gareth Farr’s From the Depths sound the great sea gongs, the tone was pure lyricism; no attempt to imitate bells.

The Herder poem, ‘Darthulas Grabesgesang’, was based on a poem in a collection called The Works of Ossian by the (in)famous Scottish writer James Macpherson. In 1760 he began to publish what he claimed were translations from the original Gaelic of folk poems and epics narrated by Ossian that he had collected. Darthulas is the subject of one of the extended poems in the collection. (“In my day” one heard about Macpherson from good English teachers in the 6th or upper 6th form, and of course at university).

The collection caught the imagination of the pre-Romantic age and was admired by poets and writers throughout Europe, including Voltaire and Diderot, Klopstock and Goethe and Herder. French composer Lesueur wrote an opera called Ossian, ou les bardes which had huge success in the Paris Opéra in 1804. Napoleon was a fan of Ossian too. The main character of the collection was Ossian’s father Fingal (yes, Mendelssohn had like most of his contemporaries, swallowed the wildly Romantic poetic compilation). While it was increasingly dismissed as a hoax it happened to match the early Romantic mood of the late 18th century – in Germany, Sturm und Drang – it’s only fair to say that Macpherson’s work is still not universally considered as plagiarism in its entirety.

A Bach motet  
One of Bach’s great motets followed: ‘Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied’.  It was scrupulously, beautifully sung, but again, somewhat too carefully articulated, with what I felt was uncalled for dynamic and rhythmic subtleties. Yet such is the joyousness of Bach’s setting that it’s impossible not to be delighted simply to hear such a polished performance. I should add that my discovery of Bach’s motets was through their performance by The Tudor Consort under Simon Ravens in the late 1980s, when that choir opened hundreds of Wellington ears to much great choral music that till then had not been well known. The choir which still has a leading place in Wellington’s choral scene, could then easily fill the Anglican Cathedral.

Poulenc’s Un soir de neige
After the Interval the choir sang Poulenc’s Un soir de neige (‘a snowy evening’); its words by Paul Éluard. I didn’t know it, but given my serious love for Poulenc’s music, I enjoyed hearing this careful account. Though its imagery links the death and regrowth of the natural world with that of humans, I didn’t think quite such a sacred tone was called for. Nevertheless, both words and music were rich in poetry and symbolism and I’ve enjoyed re-reading the poem, as well as seeking performances of the setting on YouTube. (Naturally, one uses YouTube to gain familiarity with a work one doesn’t know, and it’s often rewarding to return to it after a performance.)

Martin’s Mass for Double Choir
Finally, the work I’d particularly looked forward to: Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir. The Kyrie struck me as unduly prolonged as a result of its painstaking singing, its rather too studied rise and fall in dynamics, and I confess, embarrassedly, that it didn’t hold my attention till its end.

But the other movements were wholly satisfying, raising a curiosity over its handling of the words and their religious significance. For one thing, there’s the interest in observing Martin’s handling of his two choirs, a tour de force that demands constant admiration and delight. The Credo might be the most difficult for the non-believer to deal with, and here the setting handles it as fairly plain narrative, that one can take or leave.

After the unseasonal applause the Sanctus comes as an interesting contrast between the first verse and the ‘Pleni sunt coeli et terra…’ which injects a lively, refreshing feeling, alternating between common and triple time. It would have been nice if silence had followed the Sanctus for a calm descends with the Agnus Dei and there’s a new spirit of plain piety, wishing for forgiveness of sins (for those who have qualified).

The Mass for Double Choir was sung in Wellington by The Tudor Consort in November last year to a reasonably large audience in the Anglican cathedral. While the cathedral is far from perfect for some music, for a work that’s mostly slow and meditative it is probably the best in Wellington.

At the Tudor Consort’s concert there was no outbreak of clapping after both the Credo and the Sanctus as there was here. That is not really a matter to deplore; rather, it’s a sign that a ‘festival’ attracts people who are not regular concert goers and people who are there because of the element of occasion generated by something called a ‘Festival’.

I enjoyed this performance hugely, but I still felt that for this, especially, a space with a cathedral-like acoustic would have carried its message and its spirit more sympathetically. But that is not a criticism of the performance itself, which, in spite of the few reservations that I mention, was admirably studied and executed with scrupulous attention to the composers’ intentions.

As an encore the choir sang their arrangement of Pokarekareana to noisy delight.