Thursday, 9 June 2016

Concert reviews: Three concerts, three weeks, three Masters of Music at Westminster Cathedral

Quite by coincidence, within the space of three weeks, I had the privilege of attending three concerts under the baton of past and present Masters of Music at Westminster Cathedral. First cab off the rank was James O'Donnell, the present Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey, conducting the Abbey Choir in Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt. Next was Martin Baker, incumbent at Westminster Cathedral, conducting the Cathedral Choir in polyphonic masterpieces from the Spanish renaissance. Finally, it was David Hill conducting the Bach Choir in Bach's magnum opus the Mass in B minor. I review each in turn below.

Bach Mass in B minor, BWV 232

Royal Festival Hall, 5 June 2016, 19.30

Susan Gritton Soprano (replaced by another soprano, details unknown)
Iestyn Davies Countertenor
Ed Lyon Tenor
Neil Davies Bass
Bach Choir
Florilegium on authentic instruments
David Hill Conductor

Rating: ★★★★½

The question of how to perform Bach's choral works is a vexed one, perhaps best confined to the hallowed environs of the academy. Far more important to a paying audience is: has the conductor made the chosen method work in the moment, with the resources at his disposal? 

At the Royal Festival Hall last Sunday night, David Hill made the most compelling case possible for Bach sung with large choral forces but a chamber sized period instrument orchestra. Strange bedfellows on paper, perhaps, but any scepticism about such a combination was dispelled in the opening bars of the Kyrie, as the Bach Choir, though massed, produced vocal lines of muscularity and suppleness by turns and set the scene for a thoroughly committed, engaging and, yes, refined performance of Bach's magnum opus. 

It is true that there were moments when the size of the choir did prevent a more agile presentation of the text (for instance, in the Credo with its many Ets , the "t" was often barely audible from any of the parts, and from time to time some of the bass and tenor parts sounded slightly stodgy, such as in the Confiteor of the Credo). But what was most impressive was the overall agility of such a large vocal force and its ability to shift gear with apparently effortless ease – for instance at key moments in the Sanctus and Dona nobis pacem. In short, we had almost all the benefits of a massed choir, with very few of the many possible downsides. 

Any doubts about how the conventionally sized period instrument orchestra would cope against the might of the formidably sized choir were also misplaced. Except for a few occasions when the strings in particular did recede into a sea of voices, the orchestra, playing with remarkably energetic fluency, provided for a perfect partnership with the robustness of the choral forces. In combination, the choir and orchestra produced moments of sizzling sonorority – in the Cum Sancto Spiritu we heard a blaze of brass and an almost feverish fugal finale, in the Sanctus an epic proclamatory opening, followed by a positively dance like presentation of the Pleni sunt caeli and Osanna sections.  

Only a quartet of vocal soloists was used and it was uniformly excellent. The advertised soprano Susan Gritton was replaced by another whose name I didn't quite catch, much to the horror of at least one male fan of the first mentioned singer who let out a out dramatic groan at the news she would not be singing. His disappointment would surely have been tempered by the ravishing performance given by the stand in, whose solo parts and duets alike were delivered with great grace and aplomb. I found her vocal agility in Laudamus te to be especially convincing. Iestyn Davies once again demonstrated why he is currently Britain's foremost countertenor, with lithe and dramatic singing by turns, transfixing the audience in a mesmerisingly melancholic account of the Angus Dei. It's rare that an audience doesn't take the opportunity at the end of a piece to rid themselves of all manner of restless tendencies, but they were in silent awe of the countertenor's delivery of the piece, and the orchestra's moving accompaniment. Ed Lyon's performances are always engaging – he impressed when I last heard him sing the tenor solos in the Johannes Passion at King's College Cambridge during Holy Week this year – and his solos and duets were no exception here. In the Benedictus the slightly reserved tunefulness of the flute – almost hinting at ambivalence – was overlaid by an elegant smoothness of delivery from Lyon. Neil Davies sang both of his solos with customary authority, though I enjoyed his Et in Spiritum more than his Quoniam tu solus. The former was delightfully mellifluous and in perfect harmony with the playful pair of oboes.  

The instrumental soloists were also superlative without exception. The only notable mistake was an wrong note in the natural horn during the Quoniam to Solus Sanctus for which no points can be deducted because the horn playing was so brilliant in every other respect – a point that the audience acknowledged during its ecstatic ovation. Trumpets were bullish but never unwieldy, and the chamber organ provided excellent continuo, occasionally producing flourishes of independent praiseworthiness.  

Hill employed tempi that are common in the period instrument performances, generally on the brisker side for both choruses and solos/duets, but never sounding rushed and always allowing for appropriate spaciousness of sound. 

So a wonderful performance in is own right, and evidence that Bach performed with large choral forces can be both dramatically and musically persuasive. The Bach Choir, an amateur choir in name only, rightly deserves its reputation as one of the finest choral ensembles in the world, and the observation once made by the Daily Telegraph that "Could anyone but David Hill have achieved such a fusion of English choral tradition and state-of-the-art baroque performance practice?" was certainly borne out in this masterful presentation of the B minor Mass

Treasures of the Spanish Renaissance

Westminster Cathedral, 25 May 2016, 19.30

Frances Kelly Harp
Sally Holman Bass dulcian
Peter Stevens Organ
Westminster Cathedral Choir
Martin Baker Conductor

Rating: ★★★★½

For this concert, Martin Baker and the Cathedral Choir presented a programme consisting entirely of polyphonic masterpieces from Spain's Siglo de Oro, marking the release of their new CD of Alosno Lobo's Lamentations by reprising a programme from 1985 when the choir (then under David Hill) committed works by Guerrero, Lobo and Vivanco to disc, many for the first time. As for that landmark disc, the choir was accompanied (at least for some of the works) by organ, bass dulcian, and harp. In a review of the CD, Gramophone magazine expressed some reservations about the blend of the instruments with the choir. There were no such problems at the recent concert, as organist, harpist and bass dulican player gave sensitive accompaniments which served only to embellish, and never to detract from, the singing.

The programme began with a string of some of Guerrero finest motets. A stylish account of O sacrum convivium, and an exuberant Regina caeli were particular highlights. Then we moved into Lobo, with his well known funeral motet Versa est in luctum which was sung by a small "schola" in semicircular formation around Martin Baker. Then it was back to Guerrero for his monumental motet Maria Magdalene, followed by the Gloria from Lobo's parody Mass based on the motet. Vivanco's now well known Magnificat, another Lobo motet and two Ave Marias by Victoria completed the programme - the eight part Ave Maria given a particularly noteworthy performance. We didn't hear any of the Lobo Lamentations, which was slightly odd given that is the feature of the Cathedral Choir's new CD.

Along with an abundance of plainchant, this repertoire is naturally at the heart of the Choir's daily activities, but in a concert setting this can be as much of a hindrance as a help. Yet there was no hint of anything "routine" about this performance. Singing as a cohesive unit, and injecting maximum intensity of expression into the pieces, the choir produced near flawless performances of the renaissance masterpieces, doing full justice to the technical and artistic genius of the composers. 

There were some minor technical infelicities – for instance a slightly uneven start to the Lobo Versa est in lucctum and the first half of the Guerrero motet Maria Magdalene was not as taut as the second half – but these did not cause any appreciable impact on the overall performance. 

Unfortunately, of more concern, were the few audience members who very nearly spoiled the atmosphere of the concert by clapping after each piece, despite an express injunction to refrain from clapping until the end of the concert. The offence was aggravated because the clapping would commence without fail straight after the choir finished singing but before the sound (in the Cathedral's generous acoustic) had been allowed to dissipate into oblivion. Out of consideration for the enjoyment of the rest of the paying audience, the Cathedral attendants should have politely asked the responsible parties to cease and desist. 

In summary, despite a minority of over-enthusiastic audience members, a wonderful night with singing of the highest order. The Cathedral Choir under Martin Baker keeps going from strength to strength. Speaking of which, I hope to review the choir's excellent new Alonso Lobo Lamentations CD at some point, advance copies of which the audience was able to purchase on the night (the opportunity to maximise initial sales not advanced by the absence of a card machine). In the mean time, there are reviews by the Guardian and BBC Radio 3 which give a good impression of what other critics are saying, and with which I am in broad agreement. Though, unlike the Guardian, I would give it a fifth star. 

Handel Israel in Egypt

Westminster Abbey, 17 May 2016, 19.00

Soloists From the choir
Westminster Abbey Choir
St James' Baroque On authentic instruments
James O'Donnell Conductor

Rating: ★★★

One of Handel's most enthralling oratorios, Israel in Egypt tells the Old Testament epic of the Israelites' persecution by Pharaoh, God's retributive punishment of the Egyptians in the form of 12 apocalyptic plagues, the Israelites' eventual flight from Pharaoh's horsemen, and finally their dramatic Divine salvation in the midst of the Red Sea. For this concert, performed in Westminster Abbey a mere dozen yards from where Handel is entombed, James O'Donnell conducted the Abbey Choir – comprised, as it would be for normal services, of professional men and boy trebles – and St. James' Baroque, a chamber orchestra playing on period instruments. The vocal soloists were drawn from the choir. As is increasingly common once more in performances of Israel in Egypt, the original first part of the oratorio – which started life as standalone funeral ode for Queen Caroline called The Ways of Zion do Mourn and was later abandoned by Handel for performances – was omitted. This is unfortunate because The Ways of Zion do Mourn contains some stirring and finely crafted scoring, and was a popular addition to performances of Israel in Egypt at the height of the early music movement in the 1980s and 1990s. A practical consequence of its omission for performance is that the work begins, not with an overture, but with a tenor recitative. At least for the performance at the Abbey the overture from The Ways of Zion do Mourn was played by way of introduction. 

While in the concert reviewed above, the Westminster Cathedral Choir was performing its "core repertoire" – renaissance polyphony that it sings day at Mass and Vespers – the Abbey Choir was singing repertoire that is less "core" to its day to day work. And whereas the Cathedral Choir exploited it familiarity with the repertoire to maximum effect, delivering a nearly flawless and expressively intense performance, the Abbey Choir seemed at times ill at ease with the repertoire. Not in a technical sense – the singing throughout was (as you would expect) of a very high order from choir and soloists alike – but rather an interpretive sense. The oratorio form is almost like sacred opera. In the absence of the overtly dramatic element of the opera form, the orchestra and vocalists become the only media through which the theatre of the work can be exposed. Yet, the abiding impression at the conclusion of the performance was that it had been treated a quasi-liturgical work – a sort of enlarged choral Evensong. This meant that, at the heart of O'Donnell's interpretive approach was attention to detail, precision of execution, and purity of sound. All admirable endeavours, except if this comes at the expense of an overarching dramatic vision for the work.

At times, it sounded choir merely eased out some of its lines, when what was called for was genuine fortissimo singing. "He gave them hailstones for rain" is one example, "Thy right hand, O Lord, is become glorious in power ... " is another. In his interview for BBC Radio 3 – which was recoded prior to the performance but broadcast a few days after it along with the entire concert (available, by the way, for another 9 days as at 9 June 2016) James O'Donnell acknowledged that this oratorio, perhaps more than most, is conducive to dramatic singing to do justice to its cataclysmic subject matter (and, it should be added, Handel's scoring). Yet he specifically made a point that he did not want the choir "to bust a gut for the sake of decibels." Fair enough, but one cannot help but think that this contributed to the situation where at key moments, the choir sang well within itself when it should have been approaching the boundaries of its capabilities. And more importantly, it was sometimes drowned out by the modestly sized period instrument orchestra. Perhaps, on the approach taken by O'Donnell, a solution would have been to augment the choir exceptionally for this performance. Or just have them sing more like they did in "And with the blast of Thy nostrils".

The solos/duets were uniformly well sung, though most pieces were taken at unusually brisk tempi thereby dampening their intensity. Case in point, "Thou shalt bring them in", the penultimate movement before the rousing final choruses proclaim "The Lord shall reign for ever and ever", is conducive to a spacious tempo. The countertenor soloist sang the piece beautifully, showing lovely colour and vocal technique, but it was starved of its intensity by the hurried tempo. Among the highlights was the bass duet "The Lord is a man of war". And the trebles all gave confidently and beautifully delivered solos/duets. 

But Israel in Egypt is heavily weighted in favour of the choruses and hence they must demand the most acute attention. 

For those wishing a vaguely close comparison, here is YouTube video of a recording by Simon Preston conducting the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford (of which he was then Director before later becoming Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey) and the English Chamber Orchestra (playing on modern instruments). Note the different approach to the choral singing by a choir also comprising men and boys, no less steeped in the English choral tradition than the Abbey Choir. Note the superior dramatic realisation of the score. This is my view is the benchmark for performances by cathedral/college choirs. 

All in all, a perfectly respectable performance with no particular technical weaknesses, refined (arguably too refined) choral singing, solid orchestral accompaniment and some notable individual contributions, if , ultimately, an unadventurous realisation of the score.