choral

James MacMillan – St John Passion

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The next piece in my Lent series i’m including more as a curiosity than as a work i deeply admire. James MacMillan‘s St John Passion was composed in 2007 and premièred in April the following year. MacMillan structures the work in 10 movements, grouped into two parts; the first (movements I to IV) documents Christ’s arrest and trial, the second (movements V to X) his Crucifixion and death. Two movements break from the unfolding narrative; VIII is a setting of the Reproaches and the final movement is an instrumental epilogue.

Taken as a whole the work is, to be frank, downright weird — which is perhaps reason enough to find it at least interesting. Whatever else may be true of this piece, though, insincerity is not one of its faults; indeed, i’m not sure i’ve ever heard a composer try harder to produce something that compellingly lives up both to their own and others’ expectations, in addition to the not inconsiderable weight of tradition (and religious tradition at that). But in striving to create something utterly worthy, MacMillan ends up aggrandising every word of the text, resulting in an eccentric kind of melodrama, the protagonists of which too often become a clutch of musical ham actors (imagine Brendan Fraser attempting to convince in a film by Cecil B. DeMille). Everybody struts about, shouting and striking wildly exaggerated postures; the ‘baddies’ of the piece are obvious to the point of absurdity—Pilate could almost be twirling his moustache while sporting a maniacal grin. It’s exacerbated by MacMillan’s musical language, which on this occasion frequently sounds like a Walton/Turnage mashup with some John Stainer moments thrown in: “The Crucifixion of the Three Screaming Belshazzars” – or something like that. The attempts at grotesquery, liberally distributed throughout the work, are largely restricted to copious amounts of glissandi and wildly dissonant, ludicrously LOUD tutti eruptions, which can only be effective for so long, their returns diminishing rapidly; by the sixth movement (‘Christ’s garments divided’), the repeated downward glissandi in the choir seem irritating and awkwardly comic. Read more

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Jonathan Harvey – The Royal Banners Forward Go

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As Lent moves into Holy Week, a hymn regularly sung is “The Royal Banners Forward Go”, composed as far back as 569 by the then bishop of Poitiers, Venantius Fortunatus. The text commemorates the crucifixion, opening in strikingly vivid fashion:

The royal banners forward go,
The cross shines forth in mystic glow;
Where he in flesh, our flesh who made,
Our sentence bore, our ransom paid.

It’s not a text that seems to have appealed to many composers down the ages, a notable exception being Franz Liszt, whose Via Crucis (discussed briefly in 2009) opens with a fortissimo rendition of this hymn. Much more recently, in 2003 Jonathan Harvey composed a new setting using the English translation by J. M. Neale.

Despite lasting barely four minutes, Harvey creates an atmosphere both intense and mysterious, the men and women answering each other in stately rising fifths. Only gradually do they move out of reverential shadow, drawn out by the descriptive references to Christ on the cross; the forced tutti Harvey creates captures well the ambivalence of Holy Week, its ultimate tone of celebration violently militated against by the preceding downward spiral into suffering and death. Read more

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Gabriel Jackson – The Lord’s Prayer

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Settings of the Lord’s Prayer rarely work; they tend either to play it safe so as to preserve the solemn nature of the text (sung, as it invariably is, as a prayer during the service of Evensong), resulting in rather wan, characterless music, or go all out in an indulgement of vivid word-painting that loses sight of the function of the piece, becoming showy and egotistical. It’s a delicate balance, but the setting by Gabriel Jackson, composed in 2006, gets it just right. The style is simple, built upon a drone, over which melodic lines continually meander away and return to a bare open fifth; they’re characterised by grace notes that repeatedly give the melody a kick (a device also used in choral pieces by James MacMillan), thereby bringing them off the page, making them very much more than just a series of beautiful, mellifluous overlapping lines. The drone ceases when the text passes to the lower voices, although the harmony is sufficiently static that it almost continues by implication. In a rather brave move, Jackson breaks the intense petitionary tone of the music for the doxology; with an abrupt shift to the major key, the full choir joins together in a diatonic but richly-coloured chorale of praise that’s borderline unseemly after such humbly-delivered orisons. But, nonetheless, it does fit, and in any case subsides quickly, the closing “Amen” returning to the simpler manner from before. Read more

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Giacinto Scelsi – Tre Canti Sacri

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Composed in 1958, Giacinto Scelsi‘s Tre Canti Sacri (Three Sacred Songs) is one of his most well-known and frequently performed vocal works. The three songs—’Angelus’, ‘Requiem’ and ‘Gloria’—draw on texts associated with the Annunciation, the Mass for the dead, and the Gloria in excelsis Deo. Thematically, these texts are somewhat disparate, but the specific choices could be said to be arbitrary, as in each case Scelsi explodes the texts, often focusing on fragments and individual words rather than immediately comprehensible phrases. Furthermore, despite drawing on Christian texts, Scelsi again distances himself from their specific nature, diffusing the religious content. It’s an approach that i think sits well within the present season, seeking as it does something undeniably spiritual (these are, after all, sacred songs), yet casting off the trappings of familiarity and comfort.

‘Angelus’ is the most overtly melodic of the the three, and the most textually and stylistically clear, alluding to conventions of choral counterpoint. However, Scelsi matches this with abrupt dynamic shifts and microtonal inflections, sometimes combined violently and protruding outwards as harsh, beating dissonances. Read more

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Richard Baker – To Keep a True Lent

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My Lent series continues with a very short choral piece by Richard Baker, setting Robert Herrick’s well-known poem To Keep a True Lent. Herrick’s text draws heavily on the sentiments of Isaiah chapter 58 (words traditionally read at the start of Lent), drawing stark contrasts between superficial and genuine acts of humility and fasting.

Is this a fast, to keep
The larder lean?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
To fill
The platter high with fish?

Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d to go,
Or show
A downcast look and sour?

No; ’tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife,
From old debate
And hate;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

Read more

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James MacMillan – Domine non secundum peccata nostra (World Première)

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Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and throughout the next seven weeks, among other things, i’ll be featuring a selection of pieces suitable to the season. To begin, a recording of the world première of James MacMillan‘s anthem Domine non secundum peccata nostra, given by the choir of St John’s College, Cambridge. Directed by Andrew Nethsingha, the performance took place on Ash Wednesday last year, and also includes a solo violin, played here by Margaret Faultless. The piece is structured as a simple rondo, in which the refrain – heard three times – focuses on the essence of the text, words adapted from verse 10 of Psalm 103:

Domine, non secundum peccata nostra quae fecimus nos, neque secundum iniquitates nostras retribuas nobis.
(“Lord, do not repay us according to our sins or our iniquities.”)

MacMillan keeps the refrain relatively subdued, the words emerging from extended melismas over simple harmonies (the use of harmony throughout is simple). The violin nags away at the periphery, picking at notes, arpeggiating them, finally becoming a complementary melodic entity in its own right. There are two episodes, and both contrast strongly with the refrain, projected with much greater force. Read more

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Tansy Davies – Christmas Eve (World Première)

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The highlight of this year’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge was the commissioned carol, composed by Tansy Davies, setting Christina Rossetti’s poem Christmas Eve. Considering Tansy’s previous output, which consists largely of hard-edged, punchy instrumental works, it was hard to know quite what to expect. On the one hand, Christmas Eve is a definite stylistic departure, but on the other, it’s a seriously beguiling one. In parallel with the text, the piece blows hot and cold through the opening stanza, exploring some intriguing and paradoxical contrasts: “Christmas hath a darkness/Brighter than the blazing noon”. In the first line of each phrase, Tansy establishes a series of winding, independent strands, lingering over the words (finally – a composer unafraid to repeat whole lines of text!); these strands are then pulled together, creating some marvellous chords, before the choir erupts with the answering line. Read more

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Seasonal favourites: Jan Sandström – Det är en ros utsprungen

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One of the composers most strongly associated with this time of year is Michael Praetorius. His music dates from the early 17th century, and he is particularly well-known for his prolific treatments of Protestant hymns and songs. He harmonised numerous Christmas carols too, and there’s a kind of bold swagger to Praetorius’ approach that has no doubt helped to keep his music so beloved and oft-performed down the centuries. Composers have frequently arranged Praetorius’ music, and my fifth seasonal favourite is an impressive reimagining of one of the carols most associated with Praetorius, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.

Swedish composer Jan Sandström will perhaps forever be known best for his wild and wonderful Motorbike Concerto, but his reworking of Praetorius’ material, known by its Swedish name Det är en ros utsprungen, is no less impressive. Composed in 1990, Sandström divides the singers into two choirs and then sets to work, seemingly stretching the original to infinity. Surrounded by voices that are static, Praetorius’ chords steadily make progress through what quickly becomes a vast ambient soup, a mystical cloud of notes hovering at the boundary between familiarity and strangeness. i wonder whether Sandström was influenced by the resurgence of ambient music that began in 1990, but regardless, the soundworld of his setting remains current, even prescient (today, bedroom composers would simply put Praetorius’ original through sound-stretching software for not dissimilar results). In such a highly immersive and intense atmosphere as this, the temptation is to linger, but Sandström bravely restricts himself to just one of the carol’s three verses; admittedly, its four-minute duration never feels enough, but each one of those minutes restores a badly-needed sense of wonder back to Christmas choral music. Read more

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Seasonal favourites: Kenneth Leighton – Lully, lulla, Thou little tiny child

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As the text in Paul Edwards’ No Small Wonder intimates, there’s more to the Christmas story than just stables, angels and presents, and perhaps the best-known carol to tap into the dark side of the narrative is “Lully, lulla, Thou little tiny child”, often referred to by its nickname, the Coventry Carol. It originates in the city’s renowned mystery plays, from the section that would have been performed on the feast of Corpus Christi by its sartorial tradespeople. The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors focused on one of the New Testament’s blackest episodes, the so-called Massacre of the Innocents, when the ruler of Judea, Herod, ordered the execution of all male infants in Bethlehem, with the aim of killing the child claimed by the Magi to be the prophesied ‘King of the Jews’. This is the ghastly subject of my fourth seasonal favourite. Read more

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Seasonal favourites: Paul Edwards – No Small Wonder

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It’s a curious and rather sad phenomenon that the majority of carols being composed in recent times don’t really have much to do with congregations. For the most part, composers these days write for the choir rather than the flock, but i’m sure that many of the most popular new carols attain their popularity in part due to how ‘singable’ they seem to listeners. That can’t always be true, of course; Judith Weir’s piece needs a choir (and a good one), but Peter Warlock’s exquisite melody would be perfectly singable by the average singer, and that’s also the case in my third seasonal favourite.

Composed in 1983, Paul Edwards‘ carol No Small Wonder has become well-known over the years, and is heard regularly today in more forward-thinking Christmas services and concerts. Like the Peter Warlock i wrote about yesterday, Edwards’ setting is focused on its melody, which is both restrained and straightforward, using simple repetitions through its first four bars, not doing anything dramatic. But again like the Warlock, it’s in the conclusion of the melody that Edwards allows himself to be more adventurous. Beginning low, an ascending sequence leads to the titular refrain, the simplicity of the tune countered by highly chromatic harmonies in the organ. The opening verse is given just to the sopranos, but the second is for the full choir unaccompanied, and Edwards cranks the chromaticism of this closing chord sequence a notch further; as the text (by Paul Wigmore) has at this point veered into darker territory—”but God gives his life on a cross”—it’s both effective and very striking. The mood brightens in the final verse, the choir beginning in unison, the organ building to a forte climax, but the text casts another shadow on the light; “and all to redeem my poor heart” sings the choir, and Edwards in response pushes this chord progression further, made more poignant by the organ once again dropping out. Despite starting relatively brightly, the sudden major key of the coda quickly solemnifies to a minor shade, providing a fittingly haunting end to what is a beautiful but bittersweet carol. Read more

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Seasonal favourites: Peter Warlock (arr. Andrew Carter) – Lullaby my Jesus

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The second of my seasonal favourites is an arrangement. Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite is a somewhat humdrum affair, but the fifth movement, ‘Pieds-en-l’air’ (the melody of which began life in a 16th-century book of Renaissance dances), stands out for the quality of its high lyricism. Some years ago, composer Andrew Carter made this music the vehicle for a delicate Christmas text of his own devising:

Lullaby my Jesus, lullaby my king,
Lullaby my lording whom I sweetly sing.
Slumber softly, slumber on your mother’s arm;
She will rock you, she will keep you safe from harm.

Lullaby my Jesus, lullaby my son.
Lullaby my child in whom God’s will is done.
Be at peace, soft dreams beguile you as you lie;
I will rock you, I will sing a lullaby.

Read more

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Seasonal favourites: Judith Weir – Illuminare, Jerusalem

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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)

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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)

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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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Proms 2011: Judith Weir – Stars, Night, Music and Light (World Première)

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The 2011 Proms season commenced this evening with the world première of a new work from Judith Weir. Evocatively titled Stars, Night, Music and Light, Weir has drawn on three lines of text from the sixth stanza of George Herbert‘s poem ‘Man’, a poem that echoes the sentiments of Psalm 8, celebrating humankind as the apogee and centrepiece of God’s creation. Herbert’s lines are wonderfully deep, even a touch abstruse at times, but Weir’s sliver of text is beautifully simple, as is the music she’s composed for the occasion. Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Einojuhani Rautavaara – Christmas Carol (World Première)

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MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL!

This year’s commission at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge was from the renowned Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. Modal shifts early on in his piece, Christmas Carol, actually sound a bit like Vaughan Williams, but swiftly take on a more familiarly Scandinavian quality (to my mind, often redolent of the Icelandic composer Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson). Boldly opting for homophonic writing throughout, Rautavaara allows the narrative of his text to predominate, weaving a work that is both a story and an exhortation; the constant chordal writing has an undeniable heaviness to it, but Rautavaara’s colourful harmonies keep it fresh. Read more

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Advent Carol Service (St John’s College, Cambridge): Roxanna Panufnik – The Call (World Première)

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It’s Advent Sunday, the start of a new Church year, and before you can say “Tis the season…”, here comes the first carol service this afternoon, from – as usual – St John’s College, Cambridge.

Like its big brother, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, this service also features a new commission each year, and for 2010 Roxanna Panufnik was chosen, taking as her text George Herbert’s poem The Call. She adds to the choir a harp, creating an opulent, even heady setting, the continual upward motion of the harp sounding like clouds of rising incense; it’s a gorgeous piece, each stanza bestowed with Panufnik’s trademark rich tonality. Read more

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Proms 2010: Weir, Musgrave, Northcott, Ferneyhough, Taverner, Harvey and Jackson

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The final Proms Saturday Matinee, two days ago, featured the BBC Singers, exploring a variety of contemporary works inspired by early music. The singers were joined for the occasion by the Arditti Quartet and members of Endymion, with David Hill presiding.

The concert opened with Judith Weir‘s millennial composition All the Ends of the Earth. Weir’s innate sensitivity in writing for voices is superbly demonstrated here, the sopranos exploring increasingly complex melismas; they’re answered at intervals by the lower voices, who are backed up by soft harp and percussion. The melodic lines soon become concentric, fast and slow simultaneously, an obvious tip-of-the-hat to Weir’s inspiration for the piece, Perotin. The lower voices’ contributions become more and more static, less and less frequent, as the piece progresses; greatest emphasis is given to the often stratospheric sopranos, whose repeated Alleluia refrain carries real weight, despite the altitude. Towards the conclusion, both the lower voices and the instruments get more caught up in the celebration, the choir ultimately uniting at the very end. Read more

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