Tudor Consort revives ancient Tenebrae rituals marking the stories of Holy Week

Tudor Consort directed by Michael Stewart

Tenebrae – music for Holy Week
Plainchant, and polyphony by Victoria, Edmund Rubbra, James MacMillan and Gesualdo

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

Friday 19 April, 7:30 pm

The number of people familiar with the word Tenebrae is probably getting fewer by the year as religious belief declines and the deep-rooted traditions, including the use of Latin, are ‘modernised’. It’s not just a Roman Catholic Easter observance but it is also in the Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, Western Orthodox and other churches. And since the Roman church ditched the use of Latin in normal services, the spirit of the past is offered in concert settings where the rituals are chanted and sung in Latin.

Tenebrae is a special office particular to Holy Week which used to be observed on the three days preceding Easter Sunday: that is, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. It has now been reduced to just once or twice, and has generally retreated from performance in the small hours of the morning.

The introduction in the programme book explained that there are two parts of the office of Tenebrae: Matins and Lauds. There are three Matins on each of the three days and each consists of three ‘Nocturns’ which begin with an ‘Antiphon’ followed by Psalms, both in plainchant. The following Responsory settings are in polyphony, drawn from words respectively, in the Book of Lamentations, Saint Augustine’s commentaries and the third from the New Testament Epistles.

They are followed by settings of texts that had come traditionally to form part of the office of Tenebrae before the 1955 reforms of Pope Pius XII. Michel Stewart confined the settings of parts of the service to four composers: justified as being considered by some music scholars as among the greatest composers of liturgical music: Tomás Luis de Victoria, Edmund Rubbra, James MacMillan, and Gesualdo.

Matins, Nocturns, Antiphons, Responsories …
The first ‘Nocturn’, after the plainsong Psalm 2, consisted of five settings by Victoria and Rubbra formed the ‘Readings from the Lamentations, answered by a responsory’, which can be chosen from the 27 ‘responsories’ (three ‘nocturns’ on each of the three days), that have become traditional and have been set by various composers., according to the agendas of particular priests. Victoria’s ‘Incipit lamentatio Jeremiae’ was a beautiful, slow example of Renaissance polyphony, that was splendidly enriched in the Cathedral’s big acoustic; it presents difficulties for more recent music, but seems perfectly adapted to this.

The juxtaposition of Victoria and Rubbra seemed to reinforce the impression that their sources of inspiration were very close, only separated, not by any radical compositional transformation such as atonality or serialism, but by a naturally richer sensibility and harmonic freedom. Rubbra’s name is not very familiar today. In the first decades after WW2 his name was better known and I owned (and still might have somewhere) recordings of a couple of Rubbra’s symphonies, as I’d encountered his music on the ‘Concert’ programme of the 1950s (2YC) which was a major part of my musical education. Such programming was far from the narrow and misguidedly ‘popular’ classical music that is broadcast today.

Rubbra’s settings of the ‘Amicus meus’ and ‘Judas Mercator’ might have sounded more angular than Victoria but they were tonal and comparably sombre, though women’s voices became more optimistic towards the end.  Rubbra’s third setting, ‘Unus ex discipulis’ – one of the disciples, deal with the story of Judas…

The second ‘Nocturn’ was based on Psalm 53, and it was followed by both Victoria’s and, instead of Rubbra, James MacMillan’s settings of appropriate Responsories.  It was striking that the 60 or so years from Rubbra to MacMillan sounded far greater than the 350 years between Victoria and Rubbra as a result of the radicalisation of musical language. And his first utterance, ‘Tenebrae factae sunt’ in which Christ calls out ‘God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ was delivered in dense, almost terrifying dissonances that expressed the emotion perhaps more powerfully than any earlier style of composition might have allowed. Not that I under-estimate the power of the musical language of the height of the Renaissance or the most gifted of Romantic composers.

It was somehow most fitting for this tragic, exclamatory phase to be accompanied by the extinguishing one by one, of the 15 candles on the candelabra (or ‘hearse’) at the front of the choir (which, incidentally, made it impossible to read the programme and identify what was being sung). Here was a point at which it was probably a shame for those unfamiliar with the narrative details, to be in the dark… For those unfamiliar; for the non-adherent, or non-believer, its meaning and enjoyment would derive only from the singing.

The third Nocturn began, again with an Antiphon and a Psalm – No 93, rather vengeful in spirit. The Responsories were again from MacMillan (‘Tradiderunt me’ and ‘Jesus tradidit impius’, respectively from the books of Job and Lamentations) and one from Victoria (‘Caligaverunt oculi mei’), about Christ’s betrayal and finally the crucifixion, a piece that expresses the deepest grief.

After the last of the Matins responsories comes the Lauds which were just represented by the ‘Miserere Mei’, Psalm 51, in a setting by Gesualdo, in which verses are alternately chanted and spoken.

By then all candles had been extinguished and the church was in darkness: the final step in the Tenebrae is the Strepitus, or ‘great noise’ which took the form of a fireworks-type blast accompanied by smoke, symbolising the earthquake that followed Christ’s death.

Even in its inevitably abbreviated form, performances of one of the major rituals of the church, dominated by a great deal of wonderful plainchant and polyphony continues to attract good audiences of believers and others. The performance by the Tudor Consort under Michael Stewart was impressively accomplished and deeply moving.

There are times when the use of Latin rather than a vernacular language is a huge advantage. Here we had an admirable programme pamphlet that printed both the Latin and an English translation. Improbabilities of religious tales seem to be far more acceptable sung in Latin (or any other language) than in English where the meaning of words and sentences is unambiguous, and something of the mystery lacking. Even more important is the fact that what we hear when the original language is used, are the very sounds that the composer was setting: his resonse to the sounds, and rhythms of the original language; it’s an important aspect too in arguments about use of the original language in opera and in song recitals.


Bach Choir celebrates Saint Cecilia, exploring interesting and important music with flair and taste

Bach Choir of Wellington, directed by Shawn Michael Condon
To St Cecilia and Music

The final concert of the Bach Choir’s 50th year, music from the 16th to 20th Centuries in honour of St Cecilia, patroness of musicians, whose Feast Day is celebrated on 22 November

Nicola Holt (soprano), Jamie Young (tenor), Daniel O’Connor (baritone) and Douglas Mews (organ)

Britten’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia, setting of Auden’s poem
Gerald Finzi: God is gone up with a triumphant shout
Gounod’s Messe Solennelle de Sainte-Cécile
Plus music by Johannes Jeep, William Byrd and Handel

Saint Mary of the Angels

Sunday 16 December, 2 pm

This was a famous concert: not many musical organisations survive for fifty years. In Wellington, only the NZSO and the Orpheus Choir can claim that (and I await outraged contradictions); though it might be possible to add Chamber Music New Zealand, a very important music promoter, which began as a Wellington society in 1945 and spread its reach nationally within a few years.

The Bach Choir has had a distinguished record; founded by organist, harpsichordist, early music scholar and university teacher Anthony Jennings, one of New Zealand’s most gifted musicians, born in 1945 and died tragically young in 1995.

Though Bach has been a pretty constant presence in the choir’s repertoire, he was absent from this concert, which was dedicated to Saint Cecilia, the largely mythical patron saint of music (her day is actually 22 November, which Britten chose as his own birthday in 1913).

The chair of the Choir, Pam Davidson, sketched the choir’s story and explained the way the Saint’s gifts were woven through the concert.

So several of the pieces performed had Saint Cecilia associations. Very appropriately, Britten’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia was here; but perhaps the best known and, for many, the best loved was the Gounod mass.

Renaissance Germany: Johannes Jeep
It began in complete obscurity (for me at least): Johannes Jeep was a Renaissance German composer, contemporary of Scheit, Schein and Schütz, Pretorius, Frescobaldi, Allegri, and in England, Weekles, Gibbons, Campion. He was born and spent his first thirty years in Dransfeld, near Göttingen, NW of Eisenach – and the Bach country, studied in Italy, then Kapellmeister at the court of Hohenlohe (in today’s Baden-Württemberg), then Frankfurt.

With the choir in two parts, half in the organ gallery, Musica, die ganz lieblich Kunst (Music the loveliest art), an a cappella piece, was melodically rather charming and it set the scene for a recital that would be marked by singing of considerable refinement, sensitivity and musicality.

Byrd and Handel
William Byrd’s ‘Sing Joyfully unto God’ was just that, another joyful piece, madrigal-like, with attractive interweaving counterpoint; its huge popularity in the century following its composition was easy to understand.

The piano introduced a chorus from Handel’s oratorio, Solomon, ‘Music, spread thy voice around’, which was another piece that expresses delight in music itself, this time without owing specific indebtedness to God. Now with the choir entirely in front of us, it was harmonically more dense, to be expected in music of 150 years after the previous piece. By this time, I started to pay closer attention to the management of the choir by their director Shawn Michael Condon: his careful ear for balance and integration of parts and matching the sense of the words to singing that made sense of them.

Britten’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia
The substantial item in the first half was Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia set to a poem that Britten had asked his friend WH Auden to write. Auden complied and Britten worked at it in New York during his three year stay in the United States at the beginning of the Second World War. But it was not performed there and when he sought his exit visa to return to Britain in 1942 US Customs confiscated the score, suspecting it could contain a secret code. Fortunately, Britten had the fortitude to recompose it on the torpedo-infested voyage home and it was given a radio performance later that year (I read nothing of the score’s possible return to the composer later, with humble apologies from the paranoid officials). You can find a short but interesting account of Britten’s and Peter Pears’ American episode in a recent article copied from Gramophone magazine: https://www.gramophone.co.uk/feature/britten-in-america .

The music is quite dense and the church acoustic, generally very sympathetic, allowed it to sound cluttered at times; I think a little modification of the volume, particularly at emphatic moments might have helped. Considering its provenance, and its composition in the middle of the war, it was imbued with delight and optimism – fair enough for a 30-year-old. The dancing liveliness of the second stanza, like a scherzo movement, was brilliantly delivered, and the direct address to the saint at the end of each stanza: “Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions…”, found its contrasting ethereal spirit most successfully.

In the third section, the longest and the poetically and aesthetically most complex, I had the feeling at certain moments that a quite small choir, with most choral parts not far from the effect of solo voices, might produce a more pungent impact. Certainly, the solo parts were among the most joyous elements, though sometimes I wasn’t sure how many voices were involved, not sitting close enough to see who was actually singing. The last part of Section III is simpler, describing individual instruments; it was the most interesting part of this rather enchanting work and the feelings of preciousness that sometimes trouble me with Britten rather fell away (you can tell, I’m not a paid-up Britten groupie).

Poking about on YouTube, I came across a performance of the Britten by Ensemble Vocal du CRR (Conservatoire à Rayonnement Régional) de Montpellier, conducted by Caroline Gaulon; it was sung by small forces, about a dozen by the look of it, with an ecstatic quality and wonderful clarity: pretty good English too: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAN-TebgYsA). Associated was a clip that I felt was a singularly enchanting collection of St Cecilia music: from Marc Minkowski’s Les Musiciens du Louvre, with music by Purcell, Handel and Haydn: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0hMzZEdxKC0. Recommended!

Finzi triumphant
The second half opened with Gerald Finzi’s festive setting of words by a 17th century Puritan writer who emigrated to Massachusetts, Edward Taylor, based on verses from Philippians 2:9. This, accompanied by Mews at the organ (‘rather unsubtle at the beginning’, I jotted down) was like a continuous, rhapsodic pean of delight. I felt that the men tended to dominate and unbalance the sound in the early stages, but quickly came to enjoy the enthusiasm that drove conductor and choir. It achieves conventional musical shape by treating the second (last) verse as a meditative, slow, movement and then returning to repeat the first stanza with its ‘praise’, ‘triumphant shout’, ‘sounding trumpets’, ‘King of Glory’, asserting that all is well in this best of all possible worlds.

Gounod’s early years
I remember my surprise when I first encountered the Saint Cecilia Mass, from the Wainuiomata Choir under their splendid conductor, John Knox, in the singular setting of the main lobby of the Railway Station (how about choirs negotiating regular performances there, to astonish the communters and promote their gifts to the great unwashed). It was so full of almost secular vitality and tunefulness, not at all the sound of a typical liturgical work. And so I was not surprised that in certain quarters it tended to be denigrated as on the one hand not properly religious, and on the other, too ‘popular’, lacking the seriousness of proper classical music. Those shortcomings were fine by me; not that I don’t love Bruckner and Palestrina too.

Though Gounod had had a mass performed in 1839, aged 20, at the great church of Saint-Eustache just before leaving Paris on winning the Prix de Rome, the eight or ten years after his return were strangely barren as composer; he was a church organist, wrote several other masses, and various songs but nothing that hasn’t deservedly disappeared. Clearly he did not have what one imagines to be the mark of a real composer: music just flowing from his head demanding to be set down. He seems to have sort-of lost the composer ambition and remarked: ‘Je me sentis une velléité d’adopter la vie ecclésiastique’ – he took a fancy to a religious life.

Success in opera
Gounod’s real career started in 1849 aged 30, after he had become a friend of the distinguished singer Pauline Viardot. She spoke of Gounod to the director of the Opéra and he agreed to mounting an opera by him, especially when she promised to sing the title role in the suggested opera, Sapho. Viardot’s suggestion that prominent playwright, Emil Augier, tackle the libretto was again persuasive and suddenly a production by the Paris Opéra was on. What an extraordinary stroke for a composer with scarcely any reputation! Fortunately it was well received, mainly by the critics rather then the public, including Berlioz, at its first run in 1851. Though an aria, ‘O ma lyre immortelle’ is much anthologised, the opera itself didn’t survive.

Another opera La nonne sanglante and incidental music for a play followed, before the Messe solennelle appeared, in 1855. Its Sanctus too has taken a life of its own, shifted from the tenor to soprano – Kiri Te Kanawa among others.

The Messe solennelle – this performance
Finally, I come to the performance itself. The Kyrie opened with beautifully warm, subdued singing by female voices, quickly joined by other sections, with intermittent phrases from the three soloists; sculpted carefully and sounding as if they were deeply involved, though some tonal quality was lost as the singing intensified towards the end. The high soprano voice of Nicola Holt lit the Gloria serenely, joined by the choir in the same reverent tones. Then with the pregnant words ‘Laudamus te’, the full choir brought a totally new spirit of delight to the music, of determination. And the words ‘Domine fili unigenite’ brought a new narrative tone to it, first with solo baritone Daniel O’Connor, then tenor Jamie Young, both revealing voices well cast for the music. Various words that Gounod obviously considered significant continued to get highlighted, such as ‘Dominus Deus’, and the words ‘…qui tollis peccata mundi…’ which most composers clothe in particularly powerful phrases.

Scarcely anyone dares to observe that the best way to distinguish a masterpiece, a popular masterpiece, is almost always through melody. Some great composers get by without a very rich melodic gift, but there’s usually a powerful compensating element like an arresting flair for manipulation of melodic or rhythmic elements, or engaging the listener in a pattern of harmonic and tonal modulations. Try as certain of the severer class of music critics might to denigrate a Rossini or a Vivaldi, a Johann Strauss, or a Gounod, the presence of melodies that hang around long after the performance has ended, is the touchstone, assuming the composer has enough skill and taste to dress them interestingly.

This mass is certainly one of those, and to hear this Credo sung with any conviction tends to elicit the word masterpiece, much as it might sound a little pompous. Gounod breaks certain sections up, so the Credo completely changes its character from the confidence of the first exclamatory part, the grand ‘Deum de Deo, lumende lumine’, going quiet at ‘Qui propter sunt’, and especially ‘Et incarnatus’ with the soloists pianissimo, the singing moving between soloists to choir constantly, and then dealing with Pilate and the crucifixion in severe tones. The music of the beginning returns with the triumphant ‘Et resurrexit’, while the catalogue of beliefs continues with appropriate religious sanctity.

I dare hardly mention the one drawback of the concert: the absence of an orchestra, noticeable in the instrumental Offertory. Yet Douglas Mews created a sensitive and persuasive account of it on the Maxwell Fernie organ, and of the many moments elsewhere where the orchestra makes attractive gestures. And there was no escaping the quality of the singing under the choir’s director Shawn Michael Condon: clearly articulated, dynamically flexible and varied, and simply interesting in its story-telling character.

Gounod wrote the Sanctus for a tenor with intermittent choir. It’s the most popular part, often sung today by a soprano, like Kiri Te Kanawa. Jamie Young delivered a fine calm account of it, and he sang the ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ with a passion, that the organ supported very well.

The Benedictus is no less affecting and the choir and soprano Nicola Holt gave a moving performance of it, with its highlighted ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ delivered resolutely at the end.

It has always seemed to me that the Agnus Dei was a little less interesting than the rest of the mass. While there were lively things and of course it was splendidly sung in spite of small signs of fatigue, there were a few more signs of conventional harmonic shifts and of a composer who was going through the motions rather than breaking new ground (to use a couple of hackneyed figures of speech).

So in all, this was an excellent concert; a rewarding theme that was intelligently and resourcefully explored and exploited, a fine venue – wonderful to have St Mary’s back in good health, while the City Council has wasted several years dithering over the fate of the Town Hall – and finally, performed with taste and considerable skill under capable leadership.


Tudor Consort successfully aligns Easter concert with ending of World War I

The Tudor Consort, conducted by Michael Stewart, with Milla Dickens, soprano, and Richard Apperley, organ (As the leaves fall)
‘Music for Holy Week: Eternal Sacrifice’

Purcell: Hear my Prayer, O Lord
Parry: Songs of Farewell (Six Songs. or Motets, interspersed throughout)
Byrd: Miserere mei, Deus
Harold Darke: As the leaves fall
Gibbons: Drop, drop, slow tears
Weelkes: When David heard
Poems by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Saturday, 30 March 2018, 7:30 pm

As Michael Stewart explained in his pre-concert talk, in considering music for the yearly Good Friday concert, he had the idea of aligning music for Holy Week with music marking the end of World War I. Therefore he chose appropriate music written during that war, and interspersed it with music of earlier times written by English composers, and with poems written by two poets of the Great War. All this made for a very interesting programme.

Hubert Parry has perhaps tended to be regarded as a minor figure: very much of his  age – late Victorian and Edwardian, and the composer of the famous Jerusalem (‘And did those feet in ancient time…’), the lovely hymn tune Repton (‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind…’), the anthem I was glad, composed for King Edward VII’s coronation, and other choral pieces well-known in Anglican choirs. Tonight was quite a revelation – of the range, skill, and modernity of his choral writing.

Parry became director of the Royal College of Music in London, and professor of music at Oxford University. Stewart (and Grove’s Dictionary) stated that Parry had revitalised music in the United Kingdom, which had reached a low ebb. He was involved in teaching, among others, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, both of whom made a huge contribution to British music. Another claim to fame was his  assistance to George Grove in 1877, in the compilation of the latter’s massive Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

Given a small choir performing, able to use the resonance of the cathedral to its advantage, there was not the problem with clarity of words that there can be with a larger body of singers.

As one who had studied in Germany, to Parry, war between Britain and Germany was unthinkable. When it occurred, with its tremendous loss of life, including among music students of his, he was deeply shocked and horrified. This is reflected in the Songs of Farewell, written between 1916 and 1918, the year of his death, not least in the poetry he chose to set..

As usual, printed programmes were on A4 paper, with print large enough for the words to be read during the concert, thanks to sufficient lighting. Dates for all the composers and poets were given, and the words of the songs were printed. (Other choirs please copy these exemplary practices).

​The opening Purcell Psalm verse was grave and quiet, with exemplary tone; dynamics were beautifully managed. The poem Anthem for doomed youth by Wilfred (not Wilfrid) Owen was read immediately after, giving point through the well-known opening words: ‘What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?’ And the last line: ‘And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds’.

The first two Parry songs followed, the first a setting of the wonderful poem by Henry  Vaughan, one of the 17th century, metaphysical poets: ‘My soul, there is a country Far beyond the  stars’, which I memorised when a student. Its emphasis on peace was very telling in  this context. While the words have their own beauty, the unaccompanied setting did  not take from this euphony. Especially at the beginning, the piece was rather typical  English part-song – but no worse for that – the setting of words was very fine.

The next song, I know my soul hath power to know all things was attractive and  expressive, in a homophonic setting, in contrast to the greater intricacies of the first  song. It was followed by Byrd’s Miserere. (The more famous Allegri setting had  been on the radio that afternoon, as had Tudor Consort’s Good Friday concert from  2017). The superb polyphony was brought out by the singing, nevertheless all the  voices were skilfully blended.

Another Owen poem followed: ‘Greater love’, then the next Parry song Never weather-beaten sail, with words by Shakespearean-era poet Thomas Campion. The  setting was appropriate for these words and their period. It differed in mood from the earlier songs, and featured lovely harmony. The second verse’s words about ‘high Paradise’ were set to soaring phrases; a glorious song.

The last work before the interval was the only one featuring extended vocal solo from Milla Dickens, and also organ, by Richard Apperley. Harold Darke, who died in 1976 after a long life, was a well-known British organist and composer. He is widely known mainly for his setting of the carol In the bleak midwinter. The poem As the leaves fall was written in 1916 by Lieutenant Joseph Courtney, as a very young man. Heart-wrenching it is, particularly in the words addressed to mothers and maidens, for the loss of the male youth. The song began with a long organ introduction. Throughout, the organ part was interesting and varied.

Choir and solo soprano alternated, and sometimes sang together, reaching a climax in the final section, triumphantly proclaiming confidently ‘There is no death…’. This was quite an unusual, lengthy work that had considerable impact.

After the interval, Gibbons’s simple but sublime Song 46: Drop. Drop slow tears was simply gorgeous. (There is also a beautiful anthem on these words by New Zealander Richard Madden.) It was followed by a tragic wartime poem by Siegfried Sassoon: ‘Suicide in the Trenches’. Back to Parry, and There is an old belief. This received a very imaginative setting, and gave the impression of being difficult to sing. While expressing hope in heaven, the nineteenth-century poet John Gibson Lockhart seemed unsure about the hope, ending his poem ‘Eternal be the sleep If not to waken so’ (i.e. waken in the creed of life ‘Beyond the sphere of Time’).

Adventures in great music both well-known and unknown, marks strong revival by Cantoris

Cantoris conducted by Thomas Nikora

Sacred Music by D’Astorga and Mozart
D’Astorga: Stabat Mater
Mozart: Ave Verum Corpus, K 618; and Vesperae Solennes de confessore, K 339

Soloists: Olivia Marshall, Linden Loader, Jamie Young, Will King
Cantica Sacra Instrumental Ensemble of selected musicians

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 2 October, 3 pm

In many ways, an appealing way to design a programme: two of Mozart’s best-loved choral works and one obscure, but as it emerged, beautiful piece by an almost totally unknown composer. Emanuele d’Astorga was born in Sicily in 1680, in perhaps the most fruitful and brilliant decade in the whole history of western classical music – the decade of Vivaldi, Telemann, Rameau, Bach, Handel, Biber, Geminiani, Pachelbel, Domenico Scarlatti (who also divided his time between Italy, Spain, and Portugal; though Astorga lived in Spain at certain times, he lived mainly in Italy, travelled widely too).

Emanuele d’Astorga
Astorga inherited a Spanish barony with estates in Sicily (which was then under Spanish rule); Astorga is a town on the Camino de Santiago about 40km west of Leon in the province of that name. But there’s no evidence of his family’s residence there.

Thomas Nikora introduced the music but either he didn’t use the microphone or it wasn’t working properly for I caught little of it. Though the short account of Astorga’s life suggests that very little is known about him, browsing the internet, and even looking back to old sources such as the famous eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica there is an entry that covers most of what is known today. The best account I’ve seen is a CD booklet note by English choral conductor Robert King accompanying his recording of the Stabat Mater.

D’Astorga’s Stabat Mater
The Stabat Mater was probably written earlier than Pergolesi’s (1736), based purely on stylistic grounds (I can find no confirmation of its first performance in 1713, as offered in the programme notes).

One’s first reaction is a comparison with the very popular Pergolesi work, and the feeling that while Astorga’s is contrapuntally more sophisticated, it hasn’t Pergolesi’s artless poignancy. Nevertheless, the instrumental introduction immediately showed a skilled and imaginative composer, capturing a calm melancholy, in playing that was reassuringly secure, if not blessed with the aching sounds that the best baroque ensembles produce.

Here was an orchestra of nine strings (led by Corrina Connor) plus the chamber organ played by Heather Easting; to find fault would be unhelpful and difficult. The most important thing to stress is the huge difference a competent, instrumental ensemble makes to the persuasiveness and integrity of choral music. Much as I enjoy organ music, it usually fails as a substitute for the instruments prescribed by the composer as choral accompaniment.

The first choral entry was characterised by rising chromatic lines giving signs of a well-rehearsed choir, with soprano Olivia Marshall, right from the first, handling her lines very well, especially in her bright, higher register. The weaving of the separate lines of the choral writing, and their nicely balanced performance, that frequently made it hard to decide where the actual melody was – all parts were of equal interest. The same went for the soloists; soprano, bass, then tenor entered in turn in the ‘O quam tristis’. There were some initial tonal weaknesses, but nothing worth mentioning. An early delight was the soprano-mezzo duet at the start of the charming, triple time ‘Quis est homo’; and later in that section the men had similar opportunity which they exploited splendidly; as did tenor Jamie Young and mezzo Linden Loader in short fugal duets in the ‘Fac me tecum’.

The varied treatment of solo parts were soon comfortable, and continued to be a most attractive feature of the work. Bass Will King was uniformly impressive, his voice flexible over a wide range and relished his final exhibition in the ¾ time ‘Fac me plagis’ to which one can almost dance.

There are moments where one hears touches of Handel, in the final ‘Christe’ – the Amen chorus, or of Vivaldi in some of the rapid quaver figures from the strings; none of that’s very remarkable, since, until the current age of obsession with ‘originality’ there was nothing to be ashamed about in composing in a way that reflected one’s own age and one’s most gifted predecessors. In fact the final chorus whose contributions were charmingly varied, perhaps not in a way that especially illuminated the text, made the music constantly interesting and delightful.

There are records of a few operas by Astorga, but only one act of Dafne survives. However, he also wrote perhaps 170 ‘chamber cantatas’, said to be very attractive. Judging by the great gifts evident revealed in the Stabat Mater, I look forward to their being explored and performed.

Mozart: Ave verum and Vesperae solennes
The second half of the concert was for Mozart: the little masterpiece of his last months, Ave verum corpus, and then the splendidly-named Vesperae solennes de confessore (It always intrigues me to resurrect my knowledge of Latin grammar to explain the varying endings of each word).

The touches of uncertainty in the orchestral introduction of the Ave verum only emphasised the feeling of reverence and awe the musicians might properly have felt as they approached this serene, forgiving, simply beautiful music (I speak not of the religious significance), but there was nothing lacking in the subdued and carefully articulated performance.

The ‘Solemn Vespers’ was Mozart’s last composition for the Salzburg Cathedral before he left for Vienna. However unpleasant was his relationship with the Prince Archbishop, Mozart did not carry his feelings into this wonderful work. The chance of hearing it on a Sunday evening at your local church would have made adherence to the Catholic Church richly rewarding, in fact irresistible, in the years before the liturgical changes of the 20th century.

Again, both orchestra, now joined by a couple of trumpets and percussion, and choir evinced a touch of nervousness which quickly dissipated. It’s not only the beautiful ‘Laudate dominum’ that is memorable, each section (all are based on Psalms) is inspired both by melody and its musical elaboration. The ‘Dixit Dominus’ is a choral piece in triple time, and the singing was lively, and words were often distinct; the four soloists took change in the ‘Confitebor’, with soprano Olivia Marshall prominent, and she was a particular ornament later, in the ‘Laudate Dominum’; but each, particularly tenor Jamie Young, made distinctive contributions. They all conversed attractively in the ‘Beatus Vir’, as the voices formed and reformed the musical patterns, Linden Loader leading at times; and the strings handled their striking phases well. The ‘Laudate pueri’ is characterised by the men’s and women’s voices moving separately, fugally, around a steady almost hypnotic rhythm in common time.

It’s interesting that, in its setting, the ‘Laudate Dominum’ seems not particularly to stand out, but simply takes its place as a moment of calm between more forthright movements; apart from the splendid soprano solo, one of its glories was way in which the last bars fell away to beyond pianissimo at the end. The ‘Magnificat’, the last movement, finally made trumpets and percussion conspicuous, and gave more attention to soloists, sometimes in duet, sometimes separately.

Cantoris has had its vicissitudes over the years, but this concert was a small triumph both on account of the important and great music chosen (too many choirs seek obscure but insignificant music, guided by some ‘theme’) and the evident confidence and energy that Thomas Nikora has injected into it.



Memorable and illuminating exploration of the Miserere, its rivals earlier and later, by The Tudor Consort and Michael Stewart

The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart

Miserere:  Music for Holy Week

Cathedral of Saint Paul, Wellington

Friday 3 April, 7:30 pm

I have been rather neglectful in recent years of pre-concert talks. This time, even in the disagreeable face of train replacement by buses and possible crowds heading for the Stadium, I decided to expose myself to the possibility that I might learn something by listening to Michael Stewart. I had already heard him talking with Eva Radich on Upbeat and wanted to get a bit more clarity on the subject of the vicissitudes of Allegri’s Miserere. A very good crowd had also come early to hear the talk, which Michael illustrated with projections of various parts of various versions of the work, as well as by singing key phrases with such acute brilliance.

The Miserere is the first word of Psalm 51 (50 in the Latin, Vulgate Bible) and has long been a part of the Catholic liturgy for Holy Week, sung at the end of the Tenebrae office, ritually sung in increasing darkness as 15 candles are extinguished in the course of the singing. At its end there follows the Strepitus, or loud noise that represents the earthquake believed to have followed Christ’s death, done by ‘slamming a book shut, banging a Hymnal or Breviary against the pew, or stomping on the floor’ (Wikipedia).

Michael Stewart’s commentary
Stewart spoke of the various versions of the Miserere, both before and after Allegri’s; the secrecy imposed on the Allegri setting by the Vatican, its notation by the 14-year-old Mozart (thus in 1770), and the Papal response later, as Clement XIV praised Mozart personally for the genius of his accuracy in transcription. In the meantime Mozart had given English music historian Charles Burney a copy and it was published in 1771 (so soon?).  Later aural recordings were made by Mendelssohn and Liszt.

The young Mozart’s action was recorded in a letter home from Wolfgang’s father immediately after.

It was also recorded in 1792, the year after Mozart’s death, by his sister: “…they travelled on the 15th March 1770 to Parma, Bologna, Florence, [on] to Rome, here they arrived during Holy Week. On Wednesday afternoon they accordingly went at once to the Sistine Chapel, to hear the famous Miserere. And as according to tradition it was forbidden under ban of excommunication to make a copy of it from the papal music, the son undertook to hear it and then copy it out. And so it came about that when he came home, he wrote it out, the next day he went back again, holding his copy in his hat, to see whether he had got it right or not. But a different Miserere was sung. However, on Good Friday the first was repeated again. After he had returned home he made a correction here and there, then it was ready. It soon became known in Rome, [and] he had to sing it at the clavier at a concert.”

But one has to note that the co-author of the version performed by The Sixteen under Harry Christophers, Ben Byram-Wigfield, writes: “And several myths have grown up around the piece, such as the idea that the Pope forbade copying of the work, punishable by excommunication; and the young Mozart supposedly copying the work after hearing it performed. Neither is true.”  (http://ancientgroove.co.uk/essays/allegri.html)

The question of embellishment was also interesting. It is said that the actual ornaments used in the Sistine Chapel were, as much as anything, the most closely guarded, and the version that Burney published did not include them. They were not in the public domain until Roman priest Pietro Alfieri published an edition in 1840, which preserved the performance practice, including ornamentation, of the Sistine choir.

Stewart also dealt with the modifications to the scoring accounting for the non-authentic ‘high Cs’ in the version we know, thought to be the result of transposition. Again, Ben Byram-Wigfield notes: “the ‘Top C’ version, which was never performed in Rome, … merely a serendipitous scribal error”.

Thus, what a great idea to perform both the original version and that current today!

Two Allegri versions
The conventional version with the High Cs was sung in the first half. To enhance the impact of the high female voices, all singers of the quartet (sopranos Pepe Backer, Melanie Newfield, alto Andrea Cochrane and bass David Houston) went to the gallery above the south (Molesworth Street) door and their voices created the most thrilling effect at each return to inauthentic (if you must) bursts of spiritually ecstatic exclamation. The contrast with the other fourteen singers was marked, their voices more suffused in the huge main space of the cathedral. There was a breathless conviction about the whole performance.

Alfieri’s account of the original, with the best realisations we will ever have of the original embellishments, was sung after the interval. Here, all the singers except Paul Stapley who sang the plainsong part from the pulpit, remained at the front of the Choir. While the female voices had similar effects to handle, it was naturally less thrilling that with voices emanating from high above the nave, though awareness of the modern version teased us with an expectation that treble phrases would rise higher. Stapley’s contributions were very fine, projected with ease, even delivery allowing discreet dynamic changes, but with arresting pauses in the middle of his stanzas.

The other Miserere settings
But there was much more of great interest in this concert whose intention was to let us hear other treatments of the Miserere. First was a short setting by William Byrd, the performance of which revealed the composer’s ability to convey the feelings of lamentation and self-flagellation so beloved of religion.

And the even earlier setting (around 1503) by Josquin des Prez, evidently the best known setting before Allegri. It was thought to have been inspired as a testament to Savonarola who called for ‘Christian renewal’ and the church’s reform. He denounced clerical corruption, despotic rule and the exploitation of the poor, and was a painful thorn in the Papacy’s side. He was tortured and executed by Pope Alexander VI in 1498. Josquin’s composition is not given to expressing much sense of exultation, and expression of praise of the Almighty, which is a significant purpose of the Psalm, but emphasised our sins and the need to be purged and cleansed. Among otherwise pretty flawless singing of the other works in the programme I felt there was a touch of insecurity in ensemble and balance here.

Giovanni Croce’s Miserere of 1599, 40 years before Allegri, came from Venice (Josquin’s was from Ferrara, not far away), with the sounds of the Gabrielis in the background, and here was the precursor of the sort of high soprano ecstasy, with richer harmonies cultivated by Allegri. It was also curious, not that it seemed to affect the mood or richness of the musical setting, that the Psalm text was paraphrased as a sonnet by Francesco Bembo, whose name only calls up painters.

The Gesualdo setting
Then came what for me was the third most interesting piece on the programme (after the Allegri and the James MacMillan), the imaginative and original setting by Carlo Gesualdo, more famous for a certain violent episode in his life. There’s no better account than by music critic Alex Ross (have you read his The Rest in Noise?) in The New Yorker – (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/12/19/prince-of-darkness).

His music is generally said to be ‘ahead of its time’ by anything up to three or four centuries (and four would bring it up to the present decade). The words employed as evidence are ‘chromaticism’ and ‘dissonance’; neither is to be remarked upon today; the dissonance amounts to momentary departures from an expected harmonic cadence which are rather delicious. It was splendidly sung, all these little touches exposed with clarity and wit; with the excellent Paul Stapley, as in the Allegri, singing the plainsong verses, falsobordone (French: fauxbourdon) = false bass, I believe they are called. Nevertheless, the music follows a repeated pattern which allows the senses to relax each time the surprise comes round in the shape of a sort of rise in the tonality of the treble voices.

MacMillan – the today setting
Finally, the strong and arresting Miserere of James MacMillan who, I suppose, has a special authority today, as a confirmed Catholic. Men and women take the lines of the Psalm in turn, with women seeming to have more of the running, though the men are given an emphatic “Ecce…” – behold, in line 5. The energetic rhythm seems to flow naturally from the intrinsic rhythm of the Latin, a language which, spoken with resonance and fluency, has that unparalleled power, supported by a wonderful literature, that made the language survive remarkably, till my generation – the last, I fear, to have been in a state secondary school where perhaps a third of the boys in the third, fourth and fifth forms learned Latin.

Again at the ‘Libera me de sanguinibus…’, the great shout of anguish had dramatic power, that was quickly softened by the overlapping of men’s and women’s parts; as the end approached  the dynamics rose and fell with moments of ecstasy and spiritual entreaty.

When Simon Ravens founded The Tudor Consort back in 1986, the choir attracted overflowing, rock-concert style houses, such was the impact of his engrossing pre-concert talks with imaginative programming, often through liturgical reconstructions in a dramatically striking manner. No subsequent director has quite matched Ravens’ flair and charisma, but Michael Stewart, in his own way, is recapturing something of the excitement of that time which had the effect of raising audience numbers for most choirs, and inspiring the formation of new ones. This splendid concert and the size of the audience perhaps presages a real choral renaissance and more adventures to come.