Festival Singers under Berkahn explore baroque byways, a romantic Stabat Mater and a modern, jazz cantata

Festival Singers conducted by Jonathan Berkahn

A Rising Tide – Easter Music, by Buxtehude, Bach, Lachner, Rheinberger, Ireland and Jonathan Berkahn

St Peter’s Church, Willis Street

Sunday 6 April, 2:30 pm

The concert was advertised as performing two works: a Stabat Mater by minor German composer, Josef Rheinberger, contemporary of Brahms and Bruch, and The Third Day by the conductor.

The works that accompanied the Stabat Mater in the first half were of a similar kind: organ and vocal pieces by Buxtehude, Bach, Lachner, and religious songs by John Ireland and Berkahn.

Lachner’s name probably rings faint bells as Franz was one of a Bavarian musical family, contemporary with Schubert and Schumann. This Introduction and Fugue for organ sounded as if he was a pupil of J S Bach, rather than a composer 30 years Beethoven’s junior.  Its virtue was a bold and plain opening, using the 16 foot stops, that switched abruptly to light flutes on the choir manual. The fugue subject was of the most elementary character which might well have served as an exercise for a beginning composition student to explore the mysteries of fugue, but it was followed by a more imposing sequence of cadences that announced its conclusion.

A setting by Berkahn of a religious poem by Wordsworth contemporary James Montgomery followed; in an attractive bass voice, Jamie Henare handled the hymnal melody graciously; though the accompaniment (by the composer) was at a somewhat primitive sounding electronic keyboard.

I’m familiar with some of Rheinberger’s organ music and a few choral pieces but was unaware of a Stabat Mater. I’m afraid this exposure seemed to reaffirm the judgment of history; it recalled nothing of Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Pergolesi or Haydn, and certainly nothing of his 19th century colleagues like Rossini, Dvořák or Verdi (it is one of his Four Sacred Pieces). (I recall this choir singing Rossini’s version in 2009; in my review then, I thought the choir displayed a closer sympathy with the Catholic than the Protestant style of religious music).

This was sung in English, to a translation different from that in our programme leaflets. The translation did serve to remind the audience of the Church’s strange obsession with the most ghoulish details of the Christ story; though it was never formally a part of the Catholic liturgy, the Stabat Mater maintained its prominent place in the pattern of worship from the time of the poem’s composition in the 13th century, through its numerous musical settings down the ages.

So if verbal clarity might not have been a major concern in the choir’s rehearsal, other matters had careful attention: ensemble, intonation and style. Here, more than elsewhere, the small numbers of male singers was rather conspicuous in some lack of confidence. Nevertheless, there were several interesting features that the choir navigated well; one was a fugal section which lent the work greater variety and a certain dramatic impact.

Two organ pieces followed. Rafaella Garlick-Grice played Buxtehude’s ‘Ach Gott und Herr’ using stops with discretion, though I wondered whether her tremolo passages were appropriate. Then Berkahn played Bach’s ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’, here making good use of the organ’s range, its striking contrasts between the Great and Choir manuals, the music, probably dating from Bach’s early years at Arnstadt, rather showing up, in contrast, the relatively limited inventiveness of Lachner and even of Buxtehude.

With Rafaella again at the organ the choir sang a setting by Ireland of ‘Greater love hath no man’, using solo voices from the choir, charming if a bit taxing in the higher register.

There was a ten minute pause as amplification equipment was set up for the accompaniment to The Third Day, which was introduced with an engaging Irish interlude led by flutist/guitarist Bernard Wells.

The Third Day, the text presumably compiled by the composer, deals with happenings before and on Easter Sunday, including Christ’s descent from the Cross and the reflections by Judas and Thomas on the implications of their actions.

Berkahn conducted from the keyboard, in this instance the keyboard of the accordion suspended from his shoulders (he pointed out that before the rise of the dubious profession of the full-time celebrity maestro, music was directed from the keyboard; sometimes it was by the principal violinist or concert master).

The other members of the jazz ensemble were guitarist Andrew James, bass guitarist Adam Meers and pianist Ruth James.

The music is in a delightful post-religious-rock-opera style, that no longer (I imagine) sounds blasphemous in the ears of believers; it uses the choir, soloists and the band in an easy, varied manner, and at a couple of points bass Jamie Henare made the most engaging entries. In the final exultatory section, in triple time, the world was put to rights with the cry ‘Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!’

The concert might have seemed very disparate in style and musical character, but the effect of this very contemporary, and singularly attractive cantata was to lighten the spirits of the audience, and to give perspective to the more sombre music of the first half, perhaps to enhance it in the memory.