choral

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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Proms 2010: Stephen Montague – Wilful Chants (World Première) plus Takemitsu

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A world première from Stephen Montague is always an exciting prospect; while hardly an avant-garde figure, he’s highly unpredictable, and one imagines neither the BBC nor the audience could have envisaged what Montague would ultimately present them with in his new work Wilful Chants, given its first performance by the BBC Symphony Chorus with London Brass and O Duo, on 8 August. The work states its intentions immediately, opening with a hectic maelstrom of vocal sounds including half-whispered words, rolled ‘r’s, loud chanting, glissandos, whistles, guttural grunts and the like. The cumulative effect, driven along by a brisk pulse, is entrancing, even hypnotic, the ear constantly pulled left and right, by no means making out the filigree of details (which is hardly the point), but simply trying to hold on for the ride. A climax is reached, and things shift into pitched territory, the brass making uncanny, muted oscillations that suddenly bloom as a dark chorale, into which the choir is swiftly drawn, although remaining in the middleground at this point. A more simplistic chorale follows, sounding distinctly eastern-European; the occasionally half-heard brass oscillations keep things from becoming too conventional or familiar, however, and as the resultant high point appears to be becoming all too generic, it pulls itself apart before getting too portentous, dissolving in a new plethora of noises, accompanied by percussive clatterings. And in no time at all, the conventional trappings are long forgotten as merry mayhem breaks out everywhere, the two elements—noise and song—wonderfully blended in a thrilling street party of a finale. Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Gabriel Jackson – The Christ-child (World Première)

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A VERY HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL!

The tradition of commissioning a new carol each year for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, continued in 2009, with the renowned choral composer Gabriel Jackson chosen this year. His carol, The Christ-child,  uses an interesting text by G. K. Chesterton (The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap), alternating external observations with parenthetical reflections. Jackson picks up the contrast (each parenthesis ending in soft humming), but placing it within a gradually intensifying context, with the key words “light”, “star”, “fire” and “crown” given especial emphasis; it’s a very successful setting, although the ending feels a little laboured, perhaps even forced (from the composer, not the choir).

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Einojuhani Rautavaara – Vigilia

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On this day in 1928, the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara was born, and to commemorate the occasion, here is a performance of his 1971 work, Vigilia. A complete setting of the Orthodox liturgies of Vespers and Matins, it was broadcast in an edition of Choirworks on Radio 3 in 2001, performed by the BBC Singers directed by Stephen Layton. Layton is a keen advocate of contemporary choral music, particularly in his capacity as director of the vocal group Polyphony.

According to Christian tradition, a vigil commences in the (usually late) evening, with the liturgy of Vespers (the monastic evening prayer service), concluding at daybreak with Matins (morning prayer); Rautavaara’s work is therefore divided into two broad parts, pertaining to these two liturgies. A lengthy Orthodox liturgy sung in Finnish might seem a bit daunting, but Rautavaara’s setting is an accessible one, striking a curious but engaging balance between the stringent demands of Orthodox music and the ingenuity of modern composition. Read more

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Peter Maxwell Davies – The Wells Service

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Yesterday’s Choral Evensong came from one of our most beautiful cathedrals, Wells Cathedral, celebrating the feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The canticles came in the form of Peter Maxwell-DaviesWells Service. The Magnificat is a dense and stodgy affair, briefly aerated with a treble solo; it’s a pensive, even an introspective setting, opting for restrained technicolour (the harmonies are sumptuously rich) rather than ebullience.

This is taken much further in the Nunc dimittis, which begins disarmingly simply before its phrases begin to become stretched out in deliciously poignant fashion, particularly in the doxology where, at “world without end”, the music halts as if to reflect at length on the closing words; it concludes with one of the most sublime settings of the word “amen” that i’ve ever heard.

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Silent Song: James MacMillan – Cantos Sagrados

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If Good Friday is emotionally draining, Holy Saturday feels emotionally empty, numbed and spent. i never quite know what to do with myself on this awful day; everything, somehow, feels wrong, trivial or stupid. i imagine i’m not alone in this; perhaps it’s this feeling that explains the general liturgical silence draped over the day (the Dutch very appropiately call today ‘Stille Zaterdag’, ‘Silent Saturday’). One of the few composers to have confronted this kind of void, and – more importantly – the human motivations that cause it, is James MacMillan. Read more

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Stark and unanswerable: John Sanders – The Reproaches

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Seasonal | 6 Comments

Each year, on this, its most solemn day, i used to travel to Gloucester Cathedral for the morning Liturgy. Their approach, while lacking a true sense of the abject, was fittingly sombre, particularly at the service’s central point, the Veneration of the Cross. The moment is crushing enough, filing to the high altar to face the Cross and all it signifies, but the Cathedral then crowns it by performing John Sanders‘ setting of The Reproaches. The Cross before me; Sanders’ music behind me; on all sides the unavoidable, unanswerable, questions posed by the refrain:

O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me! Read more

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Eye-watering, but not tears: Fernand Laloux – O salutaris hostia, Tantum ergo

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i’m an occasional listener to BBC Radio 3’s broadcasts of Choral Evensong. Only occasional because Evensong, it seems, has got itself stuck – or is deliberately kept – in a rut, where it has languished for at least 50 years (this suspicion was proved some time ago, when a 50-year old recording of Choral Evensong was broadcast, the music being identical to that typical of today’s broadcasts). It’s not just that the choices of music are predictably dull, the music itself is often so weak, that i tend only to tune in when a more discerning taste is being demonstrated. Or – despite my reservations – when the broadcast comes from a Catholic cathedral, when the standard and selection of music is usually exceptional. As it was in September 1999, when the broadcast came from the Brompton Oratory in London, celebrating Second Vespers for the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The service was extraordinary, including music by Dupré, Poulenc, Pärt and Tournemire, with the Benediction hymns, O salutaris hostia and Tantum ergo, by a composer named Laloux. These settings were remarkably beautiful, but the name was new to me, and a quick search through various musical dictionaries proved fruitless. Keen to explore the pieces with a church choir i was directing at the time, i telephoned the Oratory’s director of music, Patrick Russill, to find out more about this mysterious composer. i forget exactly what he told me, but the essence of it was that this music had only recently come to light, and hadn’t even been properly published yet, hence the lack of information. Russill claimed that, at that time, only the Oratory had permission to perform the music, so i was unable to get hold of any scores. Fortunately, however, i had recorded the broadcast and so, inspired by Mozart’s transcription of Allegri’s Miserere in similar circumstances, i was able to transcribe the Tantum ergo completely (not, sadly, enough of the O salutaris hostia, due to insufficient clarity of the inner voices), which we performed on a number of occasions. In the intervening years, Belgian composer Fernand Laloux has begun to become more widely known, his scores are now more generally available, and Patrick Russill has recorded the pieces with the Oratory choir. Read more

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Dolour and death; the Way of the Cross, unadorned: Liszt – Via Crucis

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As i’ve said before, my love of the chorale began in my teenage years with Bach. This love grew after hearing Franz Liszt’s Holy Week cycle, Via Crucis, some years later. Not that chorales are a principal feature of the work; on the contrary, Liszt’s exploration of the Stations of the Cross is primarily a series of organ meditations, occasionally elaborated upon by choir and soloists. To that end, the work is very simple, austere and restrained, almost to the point of seeming – paradoxically – eccentric. Favouring a contemplative approach over a dramatic one, Liszt’s material is at times so bare, so rudely unadorned, that it can seem strange and disorienting, in the same way that churches and cathedrals up and down the land become shocking when, as now, their decorations and ornaments are shrouded in purple cloth. In fact, Liszt takes to the extreme the division of which i spoke yesterday, of emotional detachment, aloof and austere, and emotional engagement, involved and moved. With so much of the music being of the former kind, the appearance of the chorales is all the more striking, seeming to blaze in technicolor against pervading shades of grey. Liszt uses just two chorales, “O Haupt, voll Blut und Wunden” and “O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid”, both of which (the latter especially) he treats to gorgeous harmonisations. But much of the music follows, literally, the difficult, faltering steps of Christ’s journey; the organ plods, staggers, collapses, laborious and wearied. On a few exquisite occasions, serenity briefly transcends the gloom, like shafts of sunlight puncturing black cloud: as Jesus meets his mother, as Simon of Cyrene assists carrying the cross, as Jesus dies upon it, and as He is taken down from it and buried. While unashamedly ascetic, this is nonetheless a profoundly moving examination of the dolour and death to which the Via Crucis leads. Read more

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Hoping against hope: Thomas Adès – Gefriolsæ me

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It was at a concert in the spring of 1995 that i first encountered the music of Thomas Adès. The piece was Living Toys, and it was significant to my own development as a composer; i came away from the concert with a new vigour, determination and excitement about the music i wanted to create. Tom and i became mild acquaintances, and i even went to spend an afternoon with him in Cambridge, to discuss my work. While i don’t follow his music as closely as then, i still find it fascinating, and feel he’s one of this country’s more interesting composers.

A CD of Living Toys was released in 1998, and tucked quietly onto the end of that disc is a short work for male voices, entitled Gefriolsæ me. The text is an Anglo Saxon rendering of part of a verse from Psalm 51, a psalm that, due to its powerful penitential sentiments, is closely associated with Lent:

Gefriolsæ me of blodum, God hælu mine.
(“Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God my saviour.”) Read more

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Passionate, gut-wrenching, but humble: Bach – St John Passion

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Two weeks ago, i was fortunate enough to be at the performance of J. S. Bach‘s St John Passion, given by Ex Cathedra in Birmingham Town Hall. i’ve loved this work since i was a teenager, when a friend lent me a recording of the arias and chorales. It was the one by John Eliot Gardiner, a recording that captures every nuance of the drama as it unfolds, in all its beauty and terror. i bought this recording many years ago, while living in The Hague, and it was also during this time that i attended a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in the central Gröte Kerk. The Matthew, while wonderful, is far less demanding (both for performer and listener alike), and it seems appropriate that Bach approaches John’s words with such a radical outlook, as his gospel is surely the most transcendent and impassioned, emotionally, psychologically and theologically. A plethora of composers have explored the Passion accounts, but Bach’s St John Passion still, i feel, outclasses most of them; i am no staunch supporter, nor indeed even an avid listener of Bach, but he taps into something here with an honesty and clarity of vision that is extraordinary. Read more

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Days of wrath and mourning: Berlioz’ Grande Messe des Morts

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Passion Sunday, and my thoughts move into more sombre, vermilion territory. Not in a morbid sense but, nonetheless, death unavoidably starts to pervade things from now on. and with it, a return to some music that can accurately be said to have changed my life. At the time i first encountered the work – when the world was very much greener and i was far less purple – i was a floundering music student, sat in a large music studio at lunchtime, wanting to hear something new. The school had a reasonable quantity of recordings, so i worked my way through them over many months, beginning love affairs with many composers’ works. On this occasion, i picked up the Grande Messe des Morts of Hector Berlioz, with little idea of what to expect. As the music unfolded (and this really is music that unfolds), i was utterly drawn into Berlioz’ vision, with all its grandeur, terror and awe-struck beauty.

Composed in 1837, it is one of the most radical, ground-breaking choral works ever written (all the more remarkable that it is only Berlioz’ Op.5!). Its instrumentation is astonishing, including quadruple woodwind (but 8 bassoons!), 12 horns, four separate brass bands placed at the four points of the compass, 4 tam-tams, 10 cymbals (!), 108 strings, and a choir stipulated to be at least 210-strong, but Berlioz writes a footnote on the first page of the score saying “If space permits, the Chorus may be doubled or tripled and the orchestra be proportionately increased”. But if this is massive music, it is not just in terms of its orchestration; emotionally and spiritually too, there is a vastness to the scope of Berlioz’ vision that is unique among settings of the Requiem (a text set to music far too often). These gargantuan forces are only occasionally unleashed en masse (no pun intended); much of the time, Berlioz explores smaller combinations of instruments, demonstrating that while he may be wild, he is far from reckless. At its first performance and for months afterwards, it was a sensation; he even took the piece on tour, playing selections of movements from the Requiem in concerts throughout Europe. From such a large, eclectic group of instruments, Berlioz extracts remarkable sounds and effects, some of which were invented for this piece (e.g. horns playing cuivré). One effect actually caused some controversy; in the ‘Hostias’, he writes a recurring chord played only by 3 very high flutes and 8 trombones playing deep pedal notes; even into the earlier 20th Century, writers of books on orchestration insisted it was unpleasant and shouldn’t be replicated! Read more

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