choral

Seasonal favourites: Judith Weir – Illuminare, Jerusalem

Posted on by 5:4 in Advent & Christmas | 1 Comment

Despite being a time of year deeply entrenched in tradition (and not necessarily the worse for it), composers do from time to time bring a flash of innovation to Christmas. So, in the week leading up to the day itself, i’m going to explore a few of my seasonal favourites.

The first is Judith Weir‘s short carol Illuminare, Jerusalem, which dates from 1985. It was commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge, for their annual service of Nine Lessons and Carols, and has remained a regular item in their repertoire. The work combines two of Weir’s strongest qualities, simplicity and succinctness, taking as its subject a joyous mediæval Scottish text exhorting Jerusalem to be—in every sense—illuminated by what is taking place above and around it. Anyone familiar with the language of mystery plays will recognise something similar here, and Weir emphasises the quirky contours of the text in her music. The three verses are distributed to different sections of the choir; the opening verse, announcing both star and angels, is given to the trebles; the closing verse, detailing the supplanting of Herod by the more “richtous king” falls to the men alone. They’re combined in the central verse that delightfully describes the Magi as “Thre kingis of strenge regionis to thee ar cumin with lusty rout”—i doubt Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar have ever been depicted quite like that before. Each of these verses follows a similar pattern, a triplet-laden melody that begins low and gradually rises to a climax; but what follows is a stroke of genius. The refrain “Illuminare Jerusalem” is sung softly but pointedly, the second word drawn out, but the first delivered staccato and momentarily underpinned by deep organ pedal notes. It’s a totally unexpected way to set such a word, but it’s a compositional triumph, lending a weird and unsettling numinosity to the refrain, perfectly capturing the sentiments its ancient words are seeking to convey. Read more

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Jonathan Harvey – The Annunciation (World Première)

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Today is the First Sunday of Advent, and with it comes the first carol service of the new Church year, once again from St John’s College, Cambridge.

This year’s newly-commissioned carol came from Jonathan Harvey, who explored the Annunciation through words by the Orcadian poet Edwin Muir. It’s a stunning text, and Harvey clothes it in an emphatically melodic music, passing it between solo voices, creating an intimate effect. Read more

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Proms 2011: Stevie Wishart – Out of this World (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières | 1 Comment

As on previous occasions, new music featured strongly in last Saturday’s Proms Matinee from the Cadogan Hall, this time including the world première of a new work by Stevie Wishart: Out of this World, composed for the BBC Singers.

Earlier in the concert, music by Hildegard of Bingen had been heard, and it’s to Hildegard that Wishart has turned for inspiration, setting four of her texts, texts for which no extant music by Hildegard herself survives. Thankfully, pastiche is not on Wishart’s agenda, although various influences do make themselves felt at points through the piece. Opening song ‘O word of the Father’ is the most spare of them all, soft open vowels giving way to a cool and austere atmosphere in which the upper voices are silent. The male singers handle the chromaticism admirably, but the music could really do with the kind of acoustic Hildegard would have known; in the relatively echoless Cadogan Hall, some of the warmth is lost, and it sounds more severe than it actually is. The brief second song ‘O God eternal’ is much more engaging, with strong interaction between the upper and lower voices, the latter of which initially offer brief, strange sounds beneath, demarcating the pulse. It develops into a distinctly French kind of sonority, at times quite strongly redolent of Poulenc. Read more

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In Memoriam Tomás Luis de Victoria – Proms 2011: The Tallis Scholars

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400 years ago today, Tomás Luis de Victoria, one of the very finest Renaissance composers, died. To commemorate his passing, a little over three weeks ago the Tallis Scholars directed by Peter Phillips gave a late-night Prom concert dedicated to Victoria’s music.

The concert begins with one of the Motecta Festorum, Victoria’s first volume of motets, published in 1572 and marking a significant point in his career. The stirring text of Dum complerentur recalls the scene –but not, despite what the programme note says, the actual act – of the descending upon the Apostles of the Holy Spirit, and the references to sound and noise clearly got Victoria rather excited (the Tallis Scholars take it at a helpfully brisk tempo). The music can’t sit still, although the opening section, setting the scene, is downplayed, the first ‘Alleluia’ barely allowed to grow before it’s quickly interrupted (‘Et subito’). But now everything heats up; at the reference to a “sound from heaven”, Victoria lingers on the word ‘sonus’, the repeating downward lines hinting at the forthcoming climax. The second ‘Alleluia’ is allowed to develop more, but it’s not until after the next phrase, likening the sound to a “hurricane in its fury”, that Victoria unleashes a lengthy ‘Alleluia’, laden with overlapping descending lines, akin to a peal of church bells. The text then goes round in a little tautological circle, effectively setting the scene again, but affording Victoria the opportunity to explore ‘sonus’ again, this time with more extended melismas, in some of the motet’s most breathtaking material. It closes with a repeat of much of the earlier music, allowing the listener to revel again in the sheer exhilaration of that climactic ‘Alleluia’. Read more

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Proms 2011: Peter Maxwell Davies – Il rozzo martello; Georges Aperghis – Champ-Contrechamp (World Première); Harrison Birtwistle – Angel Fighter (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | 5 Comments

Last Saturday’s Proms matinee was devoted to new music, featuring no less a line-up than the BBC Singers and the London Sinfonietta, both conducted by David Atherton.

The concert opened with Peter Maxwell DaviesIl rozzo martello, a sombre and rather austere choral work that comes across as older than its mere 14 years would suggest. Unlike so many composers of contemporary choral music, Max is happily unequivocal in his mode of expression, but this also makes the piece a bit of a tough listen, so it benefits from repeated listenings, which ‘soften’ the ostensibly hard edges. It proves, at times, to be captivating; the opening, where overlapping plainsong-esque lines sustain their final note, gradually building a rich chord, is a rather magical way to start the piece, and it ends no less impressively, in a deliciously soft morass of lower voices. It’s often the male voices who have the most striking material, including a dense homophonic episode around halfway through, and some unexpected loud whispers towards the end. A difficult piece, no doubt, but given half a chance, an increasingly rewarding one. Read more

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Choral Evensong (Wells Cathedral): music by Judith Bingham, Philip Wilby and Messiaen

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Today’s service of Choral Evensong from Wells Cathedral—part of the New Music Wells Festival—broke the moribund trend of these broadcasts to celebrate English banalities in aspic, and revelled in a collection of new choral music.

It got off to a poor start, however; the American composer Gary Davison‘s setting of a text by Thomas Ken, Glory to thee, my God, this night, did little more than execute the most perfunctory and predictable word-painting; it’s an utter waste of a really rather lovely text—do we really need yet more composers incessantly churning out this banal brand of generic guff?

Following the first hymn, though, wonder of wonders: the alternative canticles! It’s incredibly rare these days to find a cathedral that actually remembers these alternatives exist, rarer still that composers see fit to set them to music. Kudos to Wells and to Judith Bingham for being prepared to break with Anglican tradition and be imaginative! Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Jan Sandström, June Nixon, Judith Weir, Einojuhani Rautavaara – Christmas Carol (World Première) & Marcel Dupré

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MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL!

As is the custom on 5:4, here are highlights from yesterday’s broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, which took place on Christmas Eve. The Christmas Day broadcast is always preferable, as it includes the final organ voluntaries.

In a delicious repeat from last year, is Jan Sandström‘s gorgeously dreamy rendering of Det är en ros utsprungen; Praetorius’ original music is practically unrecognisable, but when the result is as rapturously beautiful as this, who cares? Pieces like this prove best how good the King’s College choir really is, negotiating their way through the dense shifting clouds of notes apparently effortlessly.

The occasion continues to be staunchly male-dominated, so it’s refreshing and badly-needed to hear an arrangement by June Nixon (a name probably unfamiliar to many; she is in fact a well-known organist in her native Australia). Her setting of The holly and the ivy, which turns it into a joyous dancing romp, is so much better than its traditional version that it deserves to be heard much, much more often. Read more

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