Monday, December 19, 2005

Sweet singing in the choir (From The Tablet's Christmas edition 2005)

My friend from Johannesburg loves what Thomas Hardy called ‘the ancient stave’, choral music of the medieval and renaissance era. When she’s in London, we go on what she irreverently calls our ‘church crawls’ to stock up with Palestrina, Byrd, Lassus, Victoria, whatever is in season.

‘Intoxicating’ was the word for Sweelinck’s little offertory motet, Gaude et laetare, composed almost three hundred years ago. Sung at Solemn Mass for the third Sunday of Advent at Westminster Cathedral, it swept the senses like a powerful fountain, drenching the listener with bursts of joyful sound. The choir here - Martin Baker has been Master for five years – has the edge on its London counterparts. The acoustic is favourable because of the curved overhead canopy and the music seems more vivid, more ‘in your face’. The choir also sang movements from Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor written in honour of the Cathedral’s first music director, Richard Runciman Terry.

Martin Baker’ predecessor James O’Donnell is now at the Abbey where last month I attended the Remembrance Sunday service. Among the highlights was John Ireland’s touching anthem Greater love hath no man, actually composed in 1912, two years before the beginning of World War I. The other highpoint was The Last Post. My cousin Kingsley, whose favourite piece of music this was, asked me several times who wrote this tattoo/fanfare but I was unable to tell him. Does anybody know? Or did it just happen? It has a strange beauty beyond its funereal resonance.

The adjective ‘stunning’ applies both to the visual delights of St Paul’s Cathedral and to its echo (least obtrusive under the dome). Stately tempi are best here although the gorgeously shifting harmonies of Herbert Howell's Canticles and his ecumenical lollypop, Like as the Hart, sounded well on my visit. (When St. Paul's was being built, the organist complained to Wren that he had allowed insufficient space for the organ; Wren exploded; ‘'You and your damned chest of whistles’.)

The sound is different at the London Oratory, where female sopranos take the place of boy trebles. This small professional choir, directed by Patrick Russill has a high reputation, in particular for Gregorian chant. Recently I went to Vespers when the choir beautifully sang Lassus and Orlando Gibbons as well as plainchant. I returned for Gillian Weir’s recital to inaugurate the restored Walker organ. Weir is to the organ what Heifetz was to the violin, and Casals to the cello - a phenomenon. Each item was based not only on Gregorian chant, but we heard also the appropriate chant sung by male members of the choir. Three movements Messiaen’s magically adventurous cycle La Nativité du Seigneur were heard and works by Jeanne Demessieux, Tournemire, Duruflé, and from a different century, Nicolas de Crigny.

Appropriately, since my friend is Jewish, our last visit was to the Reform Synagogue in Upper Berkeley Street. Here there was no counterpoint, no polyphony, but only music of melody and harmony, an intriguing mixture of English, German, Russian and Middle Eastern influences. The organist was the distinguished Christopher Bowers, but the professional choir was, shall we say, not at its best that Saturday (December 10). It was an intimate and friendly service; a spiritual occasion, which felt like family prayers. I couldn’t help being tickled by the fact that one of the readings concerned a king whose diamond developed a scratch, which was dealt with by an expert jeweller.

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