Monday, 21 April 2014

The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ - London, Cambridge, Paris and Solesmes

At the Catholic Cathedral in Westminster, the Passion was sung in German (Matthaus Passion of Bach on 2 April), then English (Good Friday 3pm) according to the Roman tone and T L de Victoria's setting.  At King's College Cambridge (C of E), it was sung in German (also the Matthaus Passion of Bach on April 15), then Latin (Good Friday service at 10.30 am), the John Passion in an abbreviated format but using the traditional Roman tone.  In Paris it was sung in German (Johannes Passion of Bach).  In Solesmes it was sung in Latin (Matthew Passion on Palm Sunday).

I was blessed to be able to attend all these concerts/services.  Each was beautiful, dramatic and spiritually significant, though in different ways.  

Time will not permit me to do any more than summarise each occasion, as follows.

First the concerts.  

The Westminster Cathedral performance of the Matthuas Passion was special indeed.  Just yesterday, after Easter Sunday Mass at Westminster, I picked up a copy of the May edition of Oremus, the Cathedral's excellent magazine, and was most surprised to read that this was the Cathedral Choir's first attempt at Bach's great masterpiece.  The Choir sang particularly well, and the baroque orchestra assembled for the occasion played with authority.  Of the soloists, particular mention must go to the Evangelist, the incomparable James Gilchrist.  Star power doesn't necessarily guarantee a great performance, but in this case, Gilchrist's magical singing seemed wonderfully to galvanise the other soloists, choir and orchestra.  The other soloists (who with the exception of David Soar singing Christus were all taken from the Choir) were all very strong, and particular credit must go to the three or so choristers who took on significant solo parts.  They sang with an impressively high degree of polish and conviction and maturity.  I was reminded of one of Nickolaus Harnoncourt's many performance of the Johannes Passion - from the Catholic Cathedral in Graz, Austria, where the singing of the boy trebles is unmatched - and of Gustav Leonhardt's performance of the Matthaus passion.  

Martin Baker's direction was spot on, with each movement flowing apparently effortlessly into the next, and the evening was a splendid combination of the musical and the spiritual.

In Paris, the Orchestra of the 18th Century (founded by Frans Bruggen) and Cappella Amsterdam gave a riveting account of the John Passion of Bach at Église Saint-Roch.  Frans Bruggen was to have directed the performance, but he was taken ill and Daniel Reuss (about whom I have previously blogged) took command. The highlights were certainly the orchestra and choir - you'll be hard pressed to find better in the world - both of which were dynamic, homogeneous and completely attuned to Reuss's conducting.  The Evangelist took about 10 minutes to find his feet, but once he had, we were treated to a dramatic and tonally very appealing narration.  The other soloists were a mixed bag.  Christus sang well enough, but seemed to lack presence on stage - or perhaps, lacked the necessary aura of tragedy that befits the part.  Some of the other soloists also were no more than adequate given the occasion - very good by most measures, but when alongside a truly great orchestra and choir, there was a slight mismatch.  Disappointing especially was the alto, who sang  both Von den stricken and Es ist vollbracht.  The singing seemed to lack any emotional depth, and both pieces were beset by problems of projection.  I had a seat near to the stage, but I would be surprised if anyone further than 15 rows back would have heard her.  Perhaps I just wished we had a counter tenor like Scholl or Bowman, or an alto like Sara Mingardo or Bernada Fink.   

The stand-out soloist was the wonderful Belgian soprano Amaryllis Dieltiens. In the second video below, see especially her account of Zerfließe, mein Herz, from 55.55.

Listen to the whole concert here (this is the performance from Utrecht a few days after the Paris concert, but same performers & conductor).  Download the programme (German with Dutch translation, but useful for the performer details).

For a great performance see below video by La Petite Bande (uploaded by same).  A young Andreas Scholl sings utterly superbly.  One of the finest Es ist vollbrachts you're like to hear (go to 1.16.08).

The Matthaus Passion at King's College was a choral and orchestral tour de force.  It was the most "star-studded" performance, which as noted above does not guarantee a special performance.  But on this occasion, the King's College Choir, Academy of Ancient Music and a stellar cast of soloists including Andreas Scholl came together for an (almost) flawless, dramatically persuasive and musically sublime performance under the steady direction of Stephen Cleobury.  Let's get the "almost" out of the way first.  The Evangelist for Part 1 never really found his feet.  He was replaced for Part 2 by Thomas Hobbs (an announcement was made as to the reason for the switch - most likely to some unfortunate illness of the original Evangelist - but I could not make it out).  Although unfortunate for the original Evangelist, the fact is that the substitution improved the balance of the performance considerably - Thomas Hobbs not merely coping with his additional parts, but giving as fine a narration as you are likely to hear at present.  I imagine he is a regular Evangelist.  In short, part 2 was a faultless display of period instrument playing, choral and solo singing, and the end result was a performance easily as good as the celebrated performance at King's in the mid 1990s, with Michael Chance amongst others. What a special experience.

As for the services:
  • Palm Sunday was a good time to be at a particular Abbey of Benedictine Monks! It is one of only two times in the year that members of the public are permitted into the gardens at Solesmes (for the procession).  And Solesmes in Spring is one of the most beautiful places to be.  
  • Good Friday morning at King's (10.30 am) was the Passion service, beginning with Allegri's Miserere.  I was sitting in the Ante Chapel, where the bulk of the choir sang this piece from.  My word they have a good crop of singers at present.  The Passion of St John was shortened - but I nearly fell of my seat when I heard the narrator chant "Passio Domini Nostri Iesu Christi Secundum Ioannem" - apart from Solesmes, I have never heard this in a Roman Catholic Church before. Obviously the Anglican King's sees some value in the original Latin chant.  Much credit.  The singing was slightly unconventional, in that the narrator had a distinctively baritone sound, sounding almost like Christ.  
  • At Westminster Cathedral, the more conventional mode of singing the Passion was adopted (narrator tenor, Christ bass, other high tenor).  But it was in English when I was sure it would be in Latin (if not here, then where?)  

Monday, 3 March 2014

Gardiner's Bach Recordings Keep Coming

In 2012, his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists recorded the Ascension Oratorio again (they recorded it in 2000 as part of their Bach pilgrimage) - with mixed success.  

Last year, they recorded the Easter Oratorio, apparently for the first time.  It was released today, and my does it sound good.  Apart from the mezzo's voice (which might take a little getting used to, especially for those who are more accustomed to the pure tones of someone like Sarah Connolly, or the mellifluous voice of the British counter tenors like Iestyn Davies), this may be prove to be one of the most exciting recordings of the year.  

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Two great Cardinals leave in quick succession

As Sydney-siders prepare to farewell their beloved Cardinal, so too are the people of Cologne preparing to farewell theirs.  Joachim Cardinal Meisner, Archbishop of Cologne, is being permitted to retire at the age of 80.  Cologne, like Sydney, is regarded as a bastion of orthodoxy, thanks to Meisner's fearless leadership.

News articles can be read in:

Readers of this blog may have seen His Eminence in some of the videos of Cologne Cathedral I have posted from time to time - he was clearly of the Benedict school of thought in matters liturgical, intoning the Gloria and Credo as all celebrants should do, and on at least in occasion I detected a sung Latin Confiteor at Kölner Dom.  

Wishing Cardinal Pell all the very best as the Vatican Treasurer (or Chancellor of the Exchequer for British readers), and Cardinal Meisner in his retirement.  

Sydneyensis est sede vacante

Further to my earlier post that foreshadowed this state of affairs, the Archdiocese of Sydney has now officially been declared a vacant seat, with the appointment on Thursday 27 February 2014 of Bishop Peter Comensoli, auxiliary bishop of Sydney, as Apostolic Administrator "Sede Vacante":

Letter from Nunciature

The (now) Archbishop-emeritus of Sydney, George Cardinal Pell, with Bishop Peter Comensoli, believed to have been taken around the time of the latter's episcopal ordination in 2011

Meanwhile, the Fairfax press has actually decided to write a considered article about Pell's appointment as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy of the Holy See, though it still perpetuates some tiresome stereotypes of the Cardinal.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Sydney Sede Vacante

A little over a year after Pope Benedict's abdication, we now have the momentous news that George Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, will move permanently to Rome where he will be the Cardinal Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy of the Holy See.  This appears to be a newly created Secretariat, and a very important one at that.

Congratulations to His Eminence!

See the Vatican's press release here, with the English version following the original Italian.

See the relevant Motu Proprio Fidelis Dispensator et Prudens in Italian (English translation).

See below a letter dated 24 February 2014 from + Pell to undisclosed recipients:

See other new stories:

The ramifications for Sydney, of course, are great as the towering figure in the Antipodean church takes up residence in Rome : a new Archbishop will need to be appointed forthwith, with few instantly suitable candidates for a variety reasons.  + Coleridge has been suggested as the outstanding candidate on the basis that he is a biblical scholar and lucid preacher, competent at singing the Mass and a highly respected, orthodox and personable bishop (no mean feat), but he was only recently translated to Brisbane and is in the early stages of revitalising that Archdiocese.  + Fisher of Parramatta has long been seen as the Archbishop-in-waiting, and is also an outstanding preacher, but is he too young, and is he not still required in Parramatta to continue his excellent revitalisation of that important diocese?  + Porteous, formerly an auxiliary bishop of Sydney, has just been translated to Hobart.  + Hart of Melbourne is about the same age as + Pell, and therefore is likely to stay in Melbourne where he is doing an outstanding job.

With Pell on the Congregation for Bishops, his successor will likely have his imprimatur, though Archbishop Gallagher, Nuncio to Australia, will no doubt have his recommendations also.

We have an interesting few weeks ahead of us here in Sydney.

Vincent Cardinal Nichols

as the current Archbishop of Westminster will now be styled after he received his red hat on Saturday (22 February 2014).  Unlike the other Cardinals-in-waiting, VCN came armed with choir!!

Martin Baker's Westminster Cathedral Choir sang superbly at the Ordinary Public Consistory for the Creation of New Cardinals on Saturday (order of service), and the following day at the Sunday Mass with the Pope and new Cardinals (order of service here), joining forces with the Sistine Chapel Choir and occasionally singing separately.

Our beloved Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI also attended - one wonders if it was because he knew the Westminster Cathedral Choir would be singing - a choir he heard first-hand in 2010 (forgive the cheek, but I couldn't resist).

The choir met the Pope:

See this news etc:
There are now plenty of videos of the two events.  First, the video highlights from PapalMusic, followed by the full Consistory and Mass from TheVatican:

From the Mass

Guerrero O Sacrum Convivium - sung by Westminster Cathedral Choir alone (Cardinal Pell is in shot at the start)

Responsorial Psalm, sung by a chorister from Westminster Cathedral Choir - I strongly suspect that the accompanist is either Martin Baker, Master, or Peter Stevens, Assistant Master, of Music

From the Consistory

Stanford Beati Quorum Via

Bach, Magnificat (opening movement, organ and brass arrangement)

Consistory - Whole video

Holy Mass with the New Cardinals - Whole video

Felicitations to His Eminence

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Catching up - Part 1

Apologies for the infrequent posting of late, it has been for want of time not material.  I should soon like to do a longer post on the recent news about the new document from the Holy See, "Sacred Music: Fifty Years after the Council".  For the time being, I recommend reading the document immediately, and reading the Chant Cafe's take on it.

Also, I hope to post about upcoming concerts in Sydney, including the Bach Magnificat, a Venetian Coronation at St Mary's Cathedral (local forces conducted by the excellent Paul McCreesh - aren't Sydney-siders being spoiled this year) and the King's College Choir tour of Australia.

Here I post the first part of a summary of stories I should like to have posted about in greater detail in the past six months or so:
  • Choral music concerts in Sydney:
    • The St Mary's Cathedral Choir sang the oratorio Messiah in full - I said I would come back with a full review, but alas time escaped me.  Suffice it to say that the singing of the choir was remarkable.  The closest recording I can compare it to (singing wise) would be the New College Choir one under Higginbottom, the major difference being that in the latter they had the period instruments of the Academy of Ancient Music, whereas in Sydney, for understandable reasons, a modern instrument orchestra was employed.  It was chamber in size, and played with period instrument sensibilities, but the trumpets in particular were noticeably 'modern' sounding.  The solo parts had very well advised embellishments (a sign that much thought and preparation had gone into the rendering of the score), and the solo singing was never less than strong.  The concert was a triumph, and one eagerly awaits more of this nature in the coming years;  
    • The Brandenburg gave a stunning account of the Mozart "Great" Mass in C minor - reviews from the opening night were more subdued, citing for example haphazard tempi and some instrumental infelicities - but I saw the third concert and it (setting aside the questionable pre-interval programme) was simply superb.  The period instrument playing was distinctly mature but no less lively and engaging for it (Paul Dyer's training under masters such as Bruggen and Kuijken clearly paying off), and the singing - from soloists and choir - was very accomplished indeed.  This performance easily outdid many of the period performances committed to disc by European ensembles, and was a riveting account of Mozart's unfinished masterpiece.  Though my ears are now more accustomed to (and favour) this style of performance, I still recall with great fondness when this work was conducted at the Sydney Opera House in 2007 by the late Sir Charles Mackerras.  He had altogether bigger forces at hand, the SSO and Philharmonia Choirs, at least doubling those of the Brandenburg.  As for the Bach Magnificat by the Brandenburg, the opening concert was on Wednesday - this review cites similar  instrumental problems to those I heard anecdotally in relation to the opening night of the Mozart Great Mass - so I hope that they have been sorted out for the performance I am attending tonight; 
    • The Tallis Scholars visited the Antipodes in October last year, and performed at St Mary's Cathedral (having been displaced from the Sydney Opera House due to the excessive noise of that building's 40th anniversary party!)  I was unable to attend, but by all accounts they sang Allegri's Miserere and Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli, pieces not unfamiliar to worshippers at said cathedral, with customary aplomb; 
    • The Australian Brandenburg gave its customary series of yuletide concerts, Noel Noel - I attended the one at St Peter's Anglican Church in Cremorne.  As expected, the singing was of the usual high standard, though there was a distinct lack of polyphonic pieces which usually form part of the programme, perhaps explained by the chosen 'Celtic' theme.  At their expense were some odd inclusions, such as "Somewhere over the rainbow" and "Santa baby", seemingly not Celtic either, though they seem to have been well received by most of the audience.  
    • But it was one of the last concerts in a year of such excellent ones that deserves special mention.  It was the Bach Christmas Oratorio.  One Sydney Concert, with the Australian Chamber Orchestra (in period instrument mode), and the Choir of London, conducted by Richard Tognetti (originally it was to be Gardiner's crack choir the Monteverdi Choir with the great man conducting).  First, let's get out of the way some of the minor deficiencies in the performance.  The choir, whilst never falling below excellent, occasionally had problems with blend, especially in the upper register.  This is likely due to two factors: it is an occasional choir made up of (albeit first rate) soloists from the UK (established, commendably, to pursue charitable purposes).  I would have preferred a choir like the Vocalconsort Berlin that sang Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in Sydney in January this year (with the Waltz choreography which I had seen in Lyon in 2009) - I quite concur with their description as 'dynamic and homogeneous'.  And secondly, the small scale choir had to project itself into the large concert hall at the Opera House, with its unobliging acoustic.  Those minor criticisms aside, this was a choral feast to behold.  The entire work of six cantatas was performed, with generous interval.  Some say this made the concert too long, a view which I find hard to comprehend.  At less than 2 1/2 hours of actual performance, the concert is hardly War and Peace, though obviously demanding for the performers.  A professional orchestra and choir at a premier venue simply could not justify performing highlights, or just a few of the cantatas (despite the liturgical setting in which they would once have been performed) - a view clearly shared by Tognetti and most directors of his calibre (see video below). In any event, the concert was one of the undoubted highlights of the year.  The Australian Chamber Orchestra lived up to its reputation as one of the finest chamber ensembles in the world - precise, and rich in tone.  Tognetti's directing, and solo violin playing, were sensational.  The period trumpets were played with great authority and flair.  When it was announced that Gardiner was to give this concert, I immediately listened to my Arkiv Proucktion recording of the work, and tracked down the performance in 2000 as part of his Bach pilgrimage.  Both are outstanding renderings of the work.  The performance in Sydney - Gardiner-less as it was - was of an equivalent quality, and there couldn't have been a better way to foreshadow the Christmas season.  

More to come ...