Chatting with my neighbour at interval during Bel a Cappella’s Beatus concert, I agreed with her comment that she knew each of the composers represented, but with one exception – not the particular works sung – and what a joy it was to expand one’s experience of these composers.
Christ Church St Laurence in Sydney provided a superb environment for the concert, although the late start because of a double booking didn’t meet with favour from many in the audience. But musical director Anthony Pasquill’s genial and amusing patter smoothed over ruffled tempers and eased the large audience into an engaging and involving performance.
Starting with five exquisite minutes, traversing many moods
Arvo Part’s The Beatitudes opened proceedings; in just five exquisite minutes the music traverses many moods. The atmosphere of stillness at the start soon contrasts with telling crescendos. The central section, Blessed are the Peacemakers, is a real feature of the piece and the following lines are loud and emphatic, while still projecting a great beauty. All is brought to a close with a thrilling Amen passage.
James Macmillan’s contemporary choral works are a staple feature of many choirs’ repertoire and always repay repeat listening. Factus est Repente, an early motet from his collection The Strathclyde Motets, has a commanding beginning. It surges, swoops and soars like the mighty wind of which it speaks, leading to the surprisingly subdued Alleluia that ends the piece.
The choir’s commitment and discipline shown with Gloria Patri
Estonia has a great tradition of choral singing and produces a wealth of composers ready and willing to contribute to the repertoire. Urmas Sisask, the youngest composer represented in this concert, has produced a collection of twenty-four sacred songs, Gloria Patri, from which five were chosen for the performance. Together they formed a fascinating selection, ranging from the bold and majestic Surrexit Christus to the quieter and lyrical Omnis Una, Gaudeamus and the light-on-its-feet Benedicamus Patrem that forms the centerpiece of the five. The slow and quiet Oremus with its challenging pitch requirements, showcased the choir’s commitment and discipline to the full, while the final Confitemini Domino focused attention on short passages for individual voices, supported by a cushion of chant-like sound from the full choral forces. I marked the second and last of the five songs in the selection to follow up in future, as I found them especially compelling listening.
Tender and hypnotic John Tavener
John Tavener’s Mother and Child, believed to be receiving its Australian première performance, rounded out the first half of the program. It had a tender, almost hypnotic quality at times, so characteristic of Tavener, and then burst into a blaze of ecstasy, with organ and gong triumphantly underpinning sturdy blocks of sound from the choir.
The second half of the program featured longer-form works, with just two pieces – but what gems they were! Poulenc’s Litanie a la Vierge Noire featured the women’s voices in three parts, accompanied by the organ, sometimes in joyfully raucous dissonance and at other times echoing and emphasising the lyrical passages from the women. By the time of the Lamb of God prayers, Poulenc has choir and organ agreed on a quiet and contemplative finish, with all dissonance banished.
A resounding close with Jean Langlais
Another French composer, Jean Langlais, brought the concert to a resounding close. His Messe Solennelle, a work from 1951, made for a most satisfying finale. An attention-grabbing opening statement from David Drury on the organ was followed by solid blocks of choral sounds, with some soaring lines emerging from the texture. The Gloria featured solo male voices in chant-like mode, then a weaving of male and female voices in beautifully executed lyrical passages. A quick canter through the Laudamus and Domine Deus followed, before the very effective unison-like Quoniam. In the Sanctus both the music and the faces of the singers radiated joy, with superb rendering of the emphatic and jubilant Hosanna which ends this movement. The serenity of the Benedictus was swiftly followed by organ and choir erupting for its Hosanna, magnificent but too soon over. The start of the Agnus Dei brought a quiet and focused mood, conveying a sense almost of private prayer rather than public worship, then the work is ends with a final grand statement from choir and organ.
This was a richly rewarding concert, for connoisseurs and inexperienced alike.