Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Choral Music from the High Renaissance

I attended the October 17th performance of the Vancouver Chamber Choir with great anticipation. The concert was billed as “High Renaissance – The Golden Age of Choral Music”, with music by, among others, William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and Palestrina, some of my favourite composers from the period.

The concert opened with Byrd’s Sing joyfully to God, an anthem for the publically sanctioned Anglican Church, and a setting of Ave verum corpus, written for services in the composer’s own Catholic faith. The twenty-five voices of the Vancouver Chamber Choir were joined in this work by FOCUS! Singers, made up of students from music schools throughout the lower mainland.

William Byrd’s compositional genius was so great that his Anglican masters (mostly) turned a blind eye to his refusal to give up the Catholic faith. Because the work was written for clandestine Catholic worship, I would venture a guess that Ave verum corpus was written for small performing forces, perhaps even one singer per voice part. Nevertheless, it was a joy to hear both works, diametrically opposite in atmosphere and feeling, performed with great musicality by a full complement of voices.

Appropriately, the programme continued with Palestrina’s setting of Stabat Mater dolorosa, a poetic depiction of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross, as well as an intercessory prayer to the Holy Mother and Jesus Christ. Palestrina’s compositional style was influenced by the precepts of the Council of Trent, which stated that sacred music should be reverential, simple, and that the words sung should always be clearly audible. There is, as stated in the programme notes, a “simple nobility of musical language” in the work, which the choir (without the aid of FOCUS! Singers) sang with great feeling and musicality. Throughout the concert, conductor John Washburn did a wonderful job of blending the voices of the choir, made up of professional singers, soloists in the own right, into a beautiful vocal ensemble.

The first half of the concert ended with Thomas Tallis’ setting of The Lamentations of Jeremiah. Like Byrd, Tallis was an avowed Roman Catholic that prospered in Anglican England. Tallis’s music was more complex, contrapuntally as well as harmonically, than that of Byrd and Palestrina. I could not help wonder about Tallis’s mindset when setting words like

How deserted lies the city, once so full of people…
Judah has gone into exile, after affliction and harsh labor…
Her foes have become her master…
Her children have gone into exile.

Did he write this music, using “safe” biblical verses, as a veiled protest to the persecution of Catholics in England? Again, the choir acquitted itself admirably, and sang beautifully this extensive and heartfelt work.

The choir continued its programme in the second half with Claudio Monteverdi’s poignant setting of Lagrime d’Amante al Sepolcro dell’ Amata, inspired (as the excellent notes tell us) by the death of a beautiful and talented singer who was a student of his. Although the notes refer to this work as a Baroque madrigal, I felt that it was musically and stylistically closer to the Renaissance works that were sung in the first half. It is no accident that Monteverdi is the father of Italian opera, for the work here is musically varied and intensely dramatic. Once again, the choir rose to the challenges of Monteverdi’s difficult. There was, in the louder passages of the work, shrillness, perhaps an edge, in the sound of the sopranos that marred this otherwise immaculate performance.

The choir returned to the religious atmosphere with the last two works of the concert. Antonio Lotti’s Crucifixus, with its brief text taken from the Credo of the Catholic Mass (“He was crucified also for us, suffered under Pontius Pilate and was buried”), is an amazingly intense, stark and beautiful work, with beautiful dissonances and very sensitive text setting. For me this brief work was a discovery and the highlight of the evening.

The programme ended with Tomás de Victoria’s Magnificat primi toni, words spoken by the Virgin Mary in response to the Angel Gabriel’s Annunciation, from the Gospel of Saint Luke. I had not even heard of the names of these last two composers, and was very grateful for the discovery. The composer obviously felt drawn to the words of the Magnificat, since he wrote no less than 18 musical settings to it. Other than the one soprano voice that unfortunately stood out from the sound of the choir, the concert ended on a joyful note with this lovely performance.

In this Fall season, with Winter just around the corner, we can be thankful that we can draw inspiration from such life-affirming words and music.

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