The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, brought the finest of the English church music tradition to Australia in a series of concerts around the country from mid-July until the early days of August. For those of us who work in church music in this country, this was a real battery recharger.
The concert opened with a bracket of works in which the choir worked without the direction of its conductor, Stephen Layton. This bracket focussed on early music — Byrd’s O Lord make thy servant, Tallis’ simple Salvator mundi and Purcell’s Remember not, Lord, our offences, although it opened with a vibrant reading of Pärt’s Bogoroditse Djevo. The finest of the group was the impassioned and text-attentive reading given to the Purcell work, clearly in a musical language close to the choir’s heart. If the mellifluous Byrd and spikier Tallis works were marked by a greater degree of abstraction, the performances were not without merit. In the particularly dense weaving of the Byrd, the choir’s attention to text again proved a motif force for the music.
Stephen Layton may have been physically absent for this first bracket, but there can be no doubt that his careful management and rehearsal of the choir produced what audiences heard. Left to themselves, the choir proved a tight ensemble with fine intra-ensemble communication. I found myself more than ready to forgive the slight miscalculations that almost inevitably result when no single person is directing an ensemble: the joint thinking of the ensemble in moments like this is palpable, and actually tremendously enjoyable. The choir became more anonymous when Layton stood in front of it, more “professional” but also slightly less interesting as choir members relinquished part of their individual responsibilities in favour of the director.
The second major bracket before the interval comprised a series of more recent works: Stucky’s O sacrum convivium, Esenvald’s The heavens’ flock, Whitacre’s i thank you God for this most amazing day, Rautavaara’s Evening hymn and Ekteniya from his extended work, Vigilia, and Lukaszewski’s Nunc dimittis. This bracket presented an excellent opportunity to survey the most recent developments in choral music. This was an uneven lot of works, although given careful attention and treated with an evident respect. The weakest of the lot, Lukaszewski’s Nunc dimittis was apparently written on a plane and, unfortunately, sounded like it. The three works opening the bracket pointed up both the weaknesses and strengths of recent choral composition. In accomplished hands, like Whitacre’s, we are treated to a highly imaginative use of choral colour, but an accomplishment like this must be tempered by the realisation that often colour is being deployed for its own sake, sometimes despite the words (something that particularly plagued Stucky’s otherwise fine O sacrum convivium) and that a coherent structure based on something other that colour is often forsaken. I was struck, too, by the irritating reliance on ostinato in too many of these works. If the Choir gave us rhythmic incision in those rhythmic sections and deep commitment to variety of colour in all three works, then it delivered them in spades in what was among the finest performances of the evening, that of two movements from Rautavaara’s Vigilia — performances that made you wish we were hearing all of this great choral work, still too little performed.
The Choir went from strength to strength in a presentation after the interval of Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir, again too little performed although of such gargantuan proportions both in terms of its length and its demand on the performers that one almost forgives that. This was a sterling, sculptural performance, revealing profound commitment to the work at all levels — and all sung from memory (as, indeed, was the whole concert). Martin is one of those composers who reveals his debts to others only in coy flickers, producing something that seems wholly original and unrepeatable. This performance provided powerful advocacy for this work, characteristic of the composer and dear to his heart, and a reminder that we all need to know him better.
Most of us could not have imagined that Martin’s Mass could be followed by anything its equal, but the Choir pulled one last rabbit out of the hat — 23-year old Owain Park’s The Wings of the Wind. This is a composer worth watching for, a young man obviously deeply informed by the repertoire of the Choir and the great English choral tradition and a more than worthy inclusion in the program.
The picture of Stephen Layton is by Keith Saunders.