Saturday July 27, 2019
Chapel, King’s College, Cambridge
Here they are again, for an eighth Musica Viva tour of Australia; nice to hear the group in excellent vocal shape and an improvement on their last appearance here. A pretty full house appeared to be satisfied with the experience last Saturday evening, even if what was on offer didn’t deviate much outside the bounds of Establishment repertoire and an almost palpable tastefulness. Singing to their strengths, the Cambridge choristers excelled in certain parts of the one program they were presenting to Melbourne and even the so-so works came across as thoroughly prepared and committed, although at some stages you wondered what all the fuss was about.
Conductor Daniel Hyde, replacing an indisposed Sir Stephen Cleobury who was unable to tour, gave a benign introduction to the choir’s most adventurous offerings: Ross Edwards’ new Singing the Love, Judith Weir‘s O Mercy Divine and Pace by Errollyn Wallen. The impression gained from Hyde’s address was of something daring, music that moved the singers from their usual staid fare into new arenas of emotional and technical adventure.
Not exactly. Edwards had inserted a touch of nationalist colour with an accompaniment of some Aboriginal-type sticks, but the familiar clicks punctuated an orthodox choral texture with only a rapid downward-falling motif from the sopranos to provide an unexpected frisson of novelty. His work is in essence a setting of Psalm 100, the one about making ‘a joyful noise unto the Lord’; these words recur so that you inevitably categorise the format as a small-scale rondo, the exuberant recurrent chorus book-ending quieter sections. Every so often, you got a burst of Maninyas joyfulness but much of the work sat more than comfortably alongside the sober placidity of the program.
Weir’s setting of a Charles Wesley hymn also burst into no new territory. It seemed at the start to be a lullaby in 6/8 with a canon between the lower voices and the sopranos before moving into a more concerted central body of development. Adorning its placid choral writing, Umberto Clerici’s cello inserted a busy counter-activity – one of the night’s few points where the Sydney Symphony Orchestra principal wasn’t just reinforcing the bass line. The piece was written for last year’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, into which context it would have slotted seamlessly.
Wallen’s piece used its title as text; by the way, it’s the Italian word for ‘peace’, not a synonym for ‘step’. Throughout its (brief) length, the singers’ lines move in a sort of sliding impressionism from concords to quiet dissonances, the textures floating by pleasantly enough towards a single-note resolution. Yet again, the score presented these musicians with no striking challenges, but what could you expect from a piece whose primary aim is to encourage reflection? To that end, I think Pace might succeed to better effect in a church environment blessed with a significant echo; in this context, the experience offered little beyond the chance to admire the choir’s security of pitch.
Following this modernist bracket, the choir ended their set program with a reassuring reversion to type, just in case Wallen’s impressionist drifting had disoriented your sense of harmonic rectitude. Vaughan Williams’ Bunyan setting, Valiant-for-Truth is a fine statement of stalwart faith ending in a blaze of fanfares as ‘all the trumpets sounded for him’ – a welcome burst of aggressive, militant Christianity from the temperamentally mild Cambridge choir.
Saturday opened with a now-you-hear-it-now you-don’t Monteverdi motet, Cantate Domino: a warm-up number served with the reassurance of a chamber organ support – God knows why. The scheduled Bach, Lobet den Herrn, disappeared somewhere along the track to be replaced by Komm, Jesu, komm; fine by me – I’ll take a double choir gem against a 4-part motet any day and this one concludes with that mellifluous aria/chorale, Drauf schliess’ ich mich. Clerici and an unknown organist provided the bass-line/continuo that I can’t find in my edition but which is de rigueur in performances these days. The sound complex sounded rather sweet and euphonious for what is possibly a piece written for a funeral but Hyde and his forces approached it with a clear eye for its close echo effects and innate reserve.
The boys left the stage so that the men could sing Cavalli’s Salve Regina for altos, two sets of tenors, basses and, in this instance, organ with a certain level of independence although it’s hard to know if that was inserted by the anonymous performer. The composer sustains a reverential tone before the exciting outbreak of Ad te clamavi but the movement returns to placid, with a moving repetition of Ostende from the altos as the piece moves into its final phase. At its best, this exercise demonstrated the clarity of the Cambridge tenors and the gentlemanly restraint of the body’s basses who maintained a ruminative rumble for much of the night.
The boys returned for one of their party pieces: Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, with harpist Alice Giles a scintillating support. During this score, I became aware of an exceptional and individual voice on the right-hand side of the singers, a ripe and mature soprano with a vivid vibrato. Distracting? To some extent but also an enrichment to the choral output. I think this singer had one of the earlier solos – That yonge child? – but the ensemble handled each movement with impressive professionalism, even the rapid-fire canons of This little babe which for once showed no signs of losing pace or unanimity of attack.
As you’d expect, the singers showed an unflashy authority throughout, impressing with elegant phrasing on the Transeamus conclusion to There is no rose, an irreproachable reading blessed with a fine conclusion from the two soloists handling the Spring Carol, and a welcome animation throughout Adam lay i–bounden. The performance was punctuated with applause from listeners unfamiliar with the process of hearing a work as a unity rather than as a series of sound-bites – the same reaction that you get at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Myer Bowl concerts in February where each individual symphony movement is hailed with enthusiasm regardless of length or quality of performance.
Straight after interval, the choir sang three Tudor works, meat and drink to Anglican choirs over the past century and always welcome from practitioners like these; the sort of music-making many of us could have listened to all night. Byrd’s Laudibus in sanctis emphasized yet again the excellent unforced security from the body’s tenors while the basses continued to exercise restraint, even at pivotal moments like their Laude Dei entrances. But the energy of the two soprano parts was a source of high pleasure. Loquebantur variis linguis by Tallis was supported by the chamber organ, although I think its role was confined to doubling the bass line. This also showed the singers in a flattering light, particularly in the sprightly vigour of their Alleluia repetitions.
Concluding this segment was Hosanna to the Son of David by Gibbons that I first heard over 40 years ago at an Ely Cathedral Evensong; memorable because, on the admission of one of the choristers, the choir barely scraped through this taxing masterpiece. No worries here as Hyde directed a lightly bounding version rich in rhythmic displacements and some of the most deliciously understated false relations I’ve ever heard. Most choirs turn this motet into a loud-voiced battleground where non-existent bar-lines take unwelcome precedence. In contrast, the Cambridge musicians handled it with linear probity, the polyphonic web rising and receding with masterly skill.
Giles enjoyed a solo with Salzedo’s Variations sur un theme dans le style ancien, a virtuoso late-Romantic turn that stays close to its original material with some impressive treble detail work. In this players’ hands, the piece impressed for its subtle virtuosity. Still, it stuck out from its surroundings – Gibbons and Edwards – with uncomfortable distinctiveness . . . which didn’t do anything to subdue the enthusiasm with which it was greeted.