21 Oct 2009

From the Vaults of Westminster Cathedral

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
21 October 2009

This latest album from one of the world's most famous choirs is a collection of chant, polyphony and organ improvisations marking the start of the church year, Advent, and running through Christmas to Epiphany and the Presentation of our Lord. Chant and polyphony have formed the backbone of the repertoire at Westminster Cathedral ever since R. R. Terry became choirmaster in 1902 and bought with him a wealth of experience in early choral music at a time when it was still a rarity in Britain. The choir continues to be a leading interpreter of this music and, as this disc illustrates, they also have a healthy appetite for modern repertoire and regularly commission works for liturgical use.

The disc contains three masses. Advent opens with the plainsong Rorate caeli with its beautiful opening motif begun by a single treble voice and then continues with Victoria's magnificent Descendit Angelus Domini. It's always thought-provoking to hear plainsong sung at Westminster Cathedral since the trebles have a particularly distinctive timbre that, although mellowing in recent years, is an important ingredient in the unique sound of the choir. The mass ordinary is the plainsong setting Mass X – Alme Mater accompanied by Matthew Martin, assistant master of music. Propers are settings from William Byrd's Gradualia, 1605, for the Lady Mass in Advent. The polyphony is characteristically exciting although, in my opinion, possibly too robust for a few of Byrd's more nimble passages.

The Christmas mass begins with a plainsong psalm and then Martin's sublime setting of Adam lay bounden which was originally written for the Cardinall's Musicke. This is possibly the best performance from the trebles on the whole disc and the effect is quite mesmeric as fragments of the chant Ave maris stella weave over a more medieval-inspired harmony. George Malcolm's Missa Ad praesepe then provides a kitsch injection of Christmas fervor into the middle part of this disc with a thrilling improvised organ strepitus (a wild celebratory noise) by Martin Baker in the Gloria. This is a mass setting that bears some repeated listening as it contains a few beautiful moments as well as some fine singing.

For Epiphany and the Presentation, plainsong – Ecce advenit – is followed by Monteverdi's four-voice mass and the motet Omnes de Saba by Lassus. This motet is superbly sung with plenty of time left for the generous double-choir phrases to roll around the cathedral. The Monteverdi however, is slightly too fast which leads to some rather untidy melismas particularly noticeable in 'laudamus te' of the Gloria and at the beginning of the Agnus Dei. This is fiendishly difficult music at the best of times but with big voices in a big space I feel it needs slightly more time to breath than it is given here.

The disc ends with a beautiful Magnificat setting by Maurice Beven which alternates with mode 8 chant and Martin Baker's organ improvisations used as festal accretions. Wood's luscious Nunc Dimitis shows more of this remarkable choir's versatility before Martin Baker closes the disc with a really fabulous improvisation Marche des Rois mages which not only showcases his talent and Westminster Cathedral's organ, but also gives a sense of the sheer size of the building that that choir sings in on a daily basis. Only when we understand the expanse of Westminster Cathedral do we begin to understand how singing so much early repertoire in this space has influenced the sound of the choir.

From the Vaults of Westminster Cathedral is therefore not only a procession through the cathedral for the beginning of the church's year but also a revealing glimpse into the daily work of this famous choir and the huge repertoire that it performs. Accompanied by some of the best CD notes that I have read in a while (by Jeremy Summerly) this album is well timed for the next advent season and should please choral enthusiasts everywhere.

The Choir of Westminster Cathedral / Martin Baker (Hyperion CDA67707)

Don't talk – just listen!

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
21 October 2009

The Clerks, like many early music ensembles, have a strong interest in contemporary music and regularly perform new works. This album is a collection of their specially commissioned pieces reaching back over a decade and as such it draws together a selection of music that finds common ground in the exploration of early techniques. As Edward Wickham says of these works: 'they each represent a fascinating and innovative engagement with the compositional techniques, genres and motivations of late Medieval and Renaissance music.'

The disc opens with five motets by Robert Saxton in which biblical texts alternate with his own poetry to represent a journey. In the first motet, Dixit autem Dominus ad Abram, the biblical journey is from the book of Genesis: Abram and Sara travel from Ur to Caanan, and the parallel musical 'journey' is an exploration of parody techniques using Taverner's In Nomine melody from his Mass Gloria Tibi Trinitas. These are complex works that make for somewhat dense listening yet they yield several really beautiful moments such as the opening of Motet 2: Distant, a family travels.
The next two works are my favourites in this collection. Thou wast present as on this day by Antony Pitts is written for three pairs of voices building on a Messianic theme combined cleverly with Josquin's famous Nymphes des bois which, incidentally, featured on The Clerks' first recording back in 1993. These diverse sources lead Pitts into some really interesting harmonic territory and there is an exquisite example of this on 'glory be to thee oh lord' about 1'30' into the track.

Gabriel Jackson's The Armed Man is a cantus firmus work which uses the famous 15th century Burgundian Chanson and a prayer-like poem by Robert Palmer (1888-1916). It is typical of Jackson to find such a thought-provoking contrast; the belligerence of L'homme armé juxtaposed with the quiet disbelief of a poet surveying the battlefields of the first world war, and out of these he construes haunting sonorities especially in the middle section when the soprano sings 'lord, how long / Shall Satan in high places…' over a chorale form of L'homme armé. It's really arresting stuff and The Clerks never sounded so good.

Robert Fox contributes an interesting piece; A Spousal Verse, full of rich alto sounds and gentle spiraling harmonies. Then his cycle 20 Ways To Improve Your Life forms the central section of this disc. It is a collection of short settings of advertising copy and some bespoke prose - a take on Cries of London if you will - resulting in a miscellany of punchy pieces with amusing words. In such short bursts it's hard to discern a compositional procedure as such but there are obvious examples of word painting that work nicely and are quite humorous. I am not entirely convinced that they suit The Clerks so well as they are bitty and, frankly, I find it frustrating that they almost never get going. 'Found' texts such as these often make for great compositions (I'm thinking in particular of Jocelyn Pooke's Box Story) and these settings by Fox are certainly great fun, but I don't find them particularly engaging.

Three Contrafacta by Ian McMillan (a 14th century Caccia), Edward Wickham (So ys emprentid: Walter Frye) and Ian Duhig (anon. Ite Missa est) honour the old tradition of setting new texts to old music. Ian Duhig's After the Mass is particularly good. The album ends with a monumental setting of the Te Deum by Gabriel Jackson which, despite its complexity and density The Clerks (and singers from the Choir of St Catherine's College, Cambridge) sing with panache.

This music is incredibly well performed by The Clerks who never fail to impress with their keen musicianship and vocal prowess. In particular, Wickham's female altos make a lovely blended sound and there are several moments where the sopranos are simply sublime. This is a really fascinating album; it illustrates how inspiring early music is to modern composers and how inspiring modern music is to early musicians.

The Clerks/Edward Wickham (Signum Classics SIGCD174)

14 Oct 2009

Alessandro Scarlatti: Davidis pugna et Victoria

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
14 October 2009

When opera was banned during the season of lent, such was the demand for oratorio that Alessandro Scarlatti wrote 38 in his lifetime, most of which were for performance in the Roman church or private palaces.

Davidis pugna et victoria was written for a company of Roman noblemen – Arciconfraternita del Santissimo Crocifisso – and first performed in Holy Week, 1700.

This setting of the story of David and Goliath is much expanded to allow a deeper exploration of the characters and, in particular, to explore Saul’s concerns about the forthcoming battle. Concentration on Saul's worries makes for quite a long first part which also dwells on a more general idea: the uncertainty of fortune, which, as Carrie Churnside explains in her notes, would have been a familiar poetic theme for seventeenth-century audiences. On this recording Saul is sung by the countertenor Martin Oro and he brings a particularly mournful hue to the opening concertino ‘Heu perii’ (Alas, I die). Oro has a very rich and dark sound that can occasionally become a little too covered for my tastes, but in this oratorio he is very well cast for so much introspective material.

Apart from the inevitable development of the biblical characters, one notable deviation to the story as related in the book of Samuel is the addition of Saul's own son, Jonathan – sung by soprano Robin Johannsen. Jonathan only features in the first half and then mostly as a sounding-board for Saul's reflective arias but the appearance of this character allows the libretto to explore Jonathan and David’s infamous closeness after the battle. Johanssen’s is a crystal-clear soprano with a beautiful tone and as such is well matched to David, sung by soprano Roberta Invernizzi. Invernizzi is probably my favourite singer on this recording; she has a real bloom to her voice, which allows her to negotiate fiendishly tricky passages with ease, and in several of her arias she executes a wonderful messa di voce.
The romantic undertones to the shared aria In flore labente are quite obvious where Jonathan and David speak of the dew on flowers and the sunset. Both sopranos enjoy the texts and the sounds of the language which lead them into the duet Sic et mortis and the inevitable chorus looking forward to victory. When Goliath does arrive it is in the form of the bass Antonio Abete. There are some wonderfully low arias with hints of buffoonery that are delightfully understated by Abete who, thankfully, resists the temptation to send his character up, resulting in a powerful performance.
The Academia Montis Regalis was born out of orchestral courses specializing in seventeenth and eighteenth century repertoire lead by leading international early music specialists. Now a busy professional ensemble under the direction of Alessandro De Marchi this is their third oratorio recording for Hyperion. The orchestra has a particularly energetic style that suits the many short sections of this work and De Marchi keeps tempi on the brisk side whilst coaxing some graceful gestures out of the instrumentalists – most notably the nimble concertino players.

This is a great oratorio and very well presented recording. However, it is difficult not to make comparisons with The King's Consort who used to occupy this niche in the Hyperion catalogue but there are a few moments where the solo singing from Academia Montis Regalis can be slightly too heavy compared with the lightness usually heard from an English group or from many of the other leading European ensembles.

Academia Montis Regalis/Alessandro De Marchi (Hyperion CDA67714)