This was the second in Bel a cappella’s annual season and I was lucky enough to hear the first. Running since 1995, they have set high standards for an amateur group throughout. Sunday’s concert was held in the Catholic Church of St Augustine in Balmain, a sublimely beautiful venue for a concert titled “Salve Regina” and comprising liturgical music spanning no less than ten centuries.
A short introduction was the “Salve Regina” attributed to Hermann Contractus, a Benedictine monk of the eleventh century. A great effect was obtained by placing the sopranos at the rear of the church with the “drone” in the sanctuary producing a hauntingly engaging effect. The positioning was maintained for Allegri’s Miserere which is written in three parts for Cantor and two separate choirs. Death was prescribed for anyone copying or removing the music but Mozart was impressed enough to remember the music by heart and copy it yet avoid the above threat. The famed and unusual high C’s came through superbly from the second choir and augmented the basic plainchant.
Bernat Vivancos is a contemporary Spanish composer who was raised in the tradition of a Catalonian monastery and whose output is largely liturgical. His “Aeternam” gave a more lively feel to the proceedings. Major keys dominate with a strong chromatic nature to the themes. The piece justified the composer’s intention to provide peace and hope.
Arvo Pärt is well-known to most for his minimalistic and tintinnabular (bell-like)
style. What is less known is that these features are suited to and indeed arose from his work in the tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church. We heard his “First Prayer after the Canon” whose theme is repentance. Unusually, although the volume gradually increased, then lessened, the music remained in the home key of D minor until the final optimistic major chord.
David Basden is a modern Australian composer who has been involved with Television and Children’s songs in particular. More recently, he has concentrated on composite particularly religious choral music. His short “Salve Regina” was light and optimistic and very engaging.
Two eleventh century composers is testing the boundaries but Hildegard Von Bingen is well known, particularly for her volumes of books on various subjects and as probably the first person to use the word “Symphony”. Again there were Soprano voices above a drone bass but her “Spiritus Sanctus Vivificans” was surprisingly varied and tuneful with harmonies that would raise eyebrows if composed today.
Poulenc’ Mass in G was the pivotal work of the programme. As so often happens, the composer turned to liturgical music late in his life, presumably to heal the troubled soul that he clearly possessed. Composed in the “Missa Brevis” format, it begins with a brief “Kyrie” which ends in a Pastoral major sixth. The “Gloria” which follows is mostly soft. It has a ticking bass figure in the middle which is surprising but not out of place. The “Sanctus” is particularly dissonant while the backing of the higher voices could have heralded the “Heavenly Choir” of popular music. A beautifully harmonic “Benedictus” is followed by a suitably peaceful “Agnus Dei”. A really impressive work with the composer’s inimitable style prominent throughout.
Galina Grigoreva is Ukrainian now living in Estonia. She has always concentrated on composition of religious music stating “Anything that does not come from above has no meaning”. Her “In Paradisum” certainly fills the criteria and uses the form of the “Canonic Mass for the Dead”. Though short, the work had frequent modulations and was very gripping maintaining a up note tone. I will have to search out further examples of her music.
It is extremely difficult to maintain the concentration of an audience through a choral programme consisting entirely of devout works. The beautiful surroundings helped but congratulations are due in abundance to a well-drilled accurate and eloquent choir with scarcely a note out of place and an unbounded enthusiasm for the music which was so carefully chosen and appreciated by a grateful audience.