Penitentials for all

MUSIC FOR HOLY WEEK

Canticum Chamber Choir

Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Rosalie

Friday April 2

Canticum Chamber Choir

One of the few opportunities to hear some traditional Good Friday music arose from this event from one of Brisbane’s leading choral bodies. Given the state premier’s penchant for lockdowns, the planned initial presentation on March 31 had to be postponed for a week; luckily, conductor/director Emily Cox and her forces were able to get themselves together for this performance on the heels of the snap-lockdown’s lifting. The experience thereby gained an added frisson, as though events of this kind were lacunae in the normal life of this city – like early Christians getting a partial reprieve when a theologically indifferent Caesar came to power.

Emerging from our live-performance catacombs, Canticum gave us a mixed program, its material widespread in ambit but nearly all of it appropriate for the dour day itself. That familiar setting of Psalm 51 from the 1630s by Allegri with its exposed high Cs for solo soprano was written for Tenebrae services in Holy Week; O vos omnes is a responsory for Holy Saturday, here in the setting by Pablo Casals; presenting a Good Friday scene, although not written for that day’s observances, the Stabat mater dolorosa sequence has attracted many composers, including Domenico Scarlatti whose treatment I was hearing for the first time live.

O nata lux has its foundation in the Feast of the Transfiguration and, if not there, then Christmas, but I was happy to hear Canticum put their voices to another Lauridsen composition. Lotti’s 8-part Crucifixus deals with part of the Creed, but the part most pertinent to this day. And the Xhosa song Indodana is centred around the Son’s self-sacrifice which is the fundamental matter of Good Friday.

It’s a brave choir that opens its account with the Allegri score. For one thing, your force is split into three: the Gregorian set, the small group in the distance, and the main body. On the plus side, it’s repetitive and the change in timbre gives a necessary variety. Still, I must admit to a certain relief when the Benigne fac, Domine verse comes around and we’re on the home stretch.

Cox sent three male singers to stand under the church’s dome, from which they articulated the mono-linear chant, a line that got progressively slower as the work proceeded. But the trio stayed in tune, as did the main body Choir I who showed themselves well-prepared and expressively capable. With the four-line Choir II, matters got off to an unfortunate start, the soprano seemingly left high and dry in the first Amplius lava me intercession, the tenor and bass vanishing from view around the time of the top note on munda. Luckily, the group showed increased security in their next excursion and the negotiation of mihi proved much more secure.

As a whole, this performance was reverent, lacking in dynamic drama, although that’s understandable in a psalm that, more than most, rambles across a wide range of guilt. What it lacked more than anything, though, was a sense of urgency; these sinners were in no placatory hurry but admitted their iniquities at a measured pace. More trepidation would have helped the setting to carry more weight than this reading’s pleasure in its comfortable resonance.

As intra-choral interludes, cellist Louise King offered us two solo improvisations with a loop supporting her live performance. The first, Lament, opened with a long pizzicato passage before a solid bowed melody emerged. The language was diatonic, highly suggestive of Jewish music with what sounded like reminiscences of Bruch’s Kol Nidre setting along with a handful of Hasidic sobs. Nothing particularly startling here but an intriguing mix of sonorities and a richly expressive lyrical fluency.

The Casals motet began in the same key as the conclusion to King’s Lament – a nice piece of continuity. This O vos omnes is popular in Holy Week ceremonies, not least for its adoption by British choirs which find a reflection of their conservatism in its simple, concordant pages that reveal the cellist/composer’s happiness in a harmonic landscape that has barely progressed beyond Schumann but sets the text with impressive ardour for all that, particularly at the arresting climax on attendite. This showed a clarity of texture from the Canticums, especially across the sections where Casals almost divides his forces into 8 parts; the interpretation gave us a good taste of a choral body momentarily not under much pressure.

As with the Allegri, this evening’s performance of Scarlatti’s solid Stabat mater impressed more for its steady workmanship than for any suggestions of transcendence. For all that, the Canticums (or should that be Cantica?) enjoyed a continuo support throughout from Phillip Gearing’s chamber organ with King lending a subtle, welcome hand. In the first movement, the delivery proved reliable, apart from one of the soprano lines being happier at her work than the other in the brief canon at bars 5-6. The succeeding Cuius animam followed the same emotional bandwidth, although here you find some more intriguing harmonic structures as in the treatment of Et dolentem. Cox gave her forces some solo work at various stages across he score; fine as a change in surface tension although the ones employed in the centre of this movement tended to lag behind the pulse.

With Quis non posset, Scarlatti gives his interpreters a bit more chromatic creeping and a more lively pace at the Pro peccatis text. Even so, I think these pages could have been negotiated at a brisker pace because the sopranos and first tenors struggled with the downward motion between bars 69 to 72. A much more comfortable time they had of it in the balmy 2nds of Eia Mater, King’s surging colour prominent here for the first time. Also, the mix of soloists proved texturally intriguing and individual, while the movement came to a moving efflorescence in the closing bars with a finely judged tierce de Picardie. In this last respect, ditto for the Sancta Maria verses, moving from major to minor throughout before a concluding raised B flat. At this point, the soloists’ contribution, accurate in intonation though it was, lacked plosive bite, consonants disappearing with that freedom shown by Sutherland in her prime.

I’m fascinated by the setting styles of various writers in the Fac me tecum interlude. Scarlatti doesn’t disappoint with his major-key determination while the poet keeps giving the Mother of God more orders. The singers made a bold start on these pages but I sensed a slackening of determination at about bars 18 and 24 where the top sopranos have a short break. Some more surprises emerged in the Juxta crucem sequence. Every so often in this score, a note emerges that doesn’t exactly jar but rather points in a new harmonic direction, the composer here moving between D and D flat; not making a Gesualdo chromatic strike but sapping away at your expectations. Yet again, in these pages the soloists showed a tendency to pull against the conductor’s admittedly fluent metre, and the only unhealthy contribution heard across this score came in the soprano soloist’s last note.

A florid tenor/soprano solo alternation opened the Inflammatus, well carried off even if it might have gained from more exuberance and less self-consciousness. When they entered, the main body also played by the book and tamped down the potential for vigour, possible because of Scarlatti’s sudden plethora of minims. To their credit, the soloists’ second exposure proved more persuasive, almost exhilarating. I expect (not having counted the bars) that the Fac ut animae segment is the longest of this score and hard work for its interpreters as Scarlatti channels his inner Handel. Sadly, the melodic material stays unremarkable at a point where we need novelty but instead get blocks of vocal fabric that offer little variety. Full marks to the singers for soldiering through it.

The 3/8 Amen (even though we’d enjoyed an Amen during the previous movement) restored some vitality, even if the basses failed to make much of an impact at their first bar 11 entry. But the performance ended in fine style thanks to an excellent integration of solo lines into the full corps, completing the task with some welcome panache.

Canticum has recorded some Lauridsen and has clear sympathy with the American master’s style, including an ease with those added 2nds and 7ths. The singers treated O nata lux with devotion, putting their vocal backs (?!) into the task and carrying off a fine realization of the brief work’s recapitulation/coda at bar 35. To Cox’s credit, she kept her charges at a steady pace, without wallowing in the wash of choral colours and the occasional passage of very ripe chordal texture.

King’s Dawn Light solo moved to the major and impressed for its felicitous character, enriched by some excellent integration of live and taped material. Were there some Sculthorpe-type bird imitations in the mix, or was that a serendipitous intrusion from outside the building? Whatever the case, this was a welcome instance of affirmative action, giving vent even more to the player’s appealing and resonant production abilities.

All of Canticum moved to stand under the Sacred Heart dome for Lotti’s Crucifixus. It’s unusual to clump your lines together like this in a work for 8 parts but the results were excellent, the mesh a glowing texture of impressive movement at sub Pontio Pilato.

If you’ve seen the University of Pretoria Camerata sing Indodana under arranger Michael Barrett (available on YouTube), you’ve heard this simple construct at its best. Which is no reason for not essaying such an atmospheric piece yourself. I liked the Canticum version, although it was necessarily more elegant than anticipated. Still, the linear complex proved faultless with some well-balanced sustained chords from tenors and basses, the latter an explosive force at the work’s Jehova! climax across bars 46-48. An uplifting conclusion to this event that, for me at least, put the day into its proper perspective.