Friday 20 March 2015

Mass and Motets for an Easter Vigil - Stephen Layton and the Holst Singers

Allegri, Sanders, Martin, Messiaen; The Holst Singers, Layton; Temple Music at Temple Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 19 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Sheer beauty of sound in a choral programme for Easter

Conducted by Stephen Layton, the Holst Singers performed their programme Mass and Motets for an Easter Vigil at the Temple Church on Thursday 19 March 2015, as part of the Temple Music Foundation's 2015 season. The concert opened with Allegri's Miserere, followed by John Sanders The Reproaches, and Frank Martin's Mass for Double Choir, concluding with Olivier Messiaen's only sacred choral work, the early motet O Sacrum Convivium.

The choir is quite a large group, some 45 singers, and they stood in the entrance to the Round Church with the audience in the stalls in the nave, an arrangement which worked well and gave the choir the benefit of the support of the Round Church's acoustic. Conductor Stephen Layton is a former director of music at the Temple Church, so can be assumed to know how best to deal with its fine, but quirky acoustic.
Stephen Layton - photo credit Simon Perry
Stephen Layton - photo credit Simon Perry
They opened with Allegri's Miserere, sung in the modern version with the non-canonical but now traditional top C, the soloists standing unseen in the Round Church behind the main choir, thus creating a  very atmospheric effect. Layton took a very relaxed view of the main choral parts of the piece, and his main concern seemed to be the finely elegant way the choir shaped the music. The singers make a lovely warm sound, with a rich bass, and are surprisingly flexible for a choir of its size. The combination of the shapely beauty of the phrasing, the gentle speed, and the magical hushed tone from the large number of singers, gave the performance a very particular sound quality, like no other performance of the work that I can think of.

For my ears, Layton's musical approach seemed to suit the romantic sound-world of John Sanders The Reproaches far better. John Sanders (1933-2003) was the musical director of Chester and Gloucester Cathedrals, and The Reproaches is his setting of the Good Friday Reproaches, which he introduced in 1984 after the Anglican liturgy was revised. The programme note said Sanders took inspiration for the piece from Allegri's Miserere and the music of Gesualdo, but the other composer invoked for me was John Tavener. The text is a series of reproaches, allocated to a fine baritone soloist and sung in a chant-like way, with choral responses. Sanders used the same choral response for each, and seemed to revel in the dynamic contrast between his soloist and ensemble. The basic sound world was tonal, with some chromatic interest. The musical material just lacked sufficient interest and felt rather stretched, but there was a real real gorgeousness of sound.

The Mass for Double Choir was an early work by Frank Martin (1890-1974) written in the 1920's. A devout Calvinist, a setting of the Latin mass might seem a slightly unlikely work but the piece's very personal nature is indicated by they way Martin was reluctant to let it be performed and it was not premiered until the 1960's. It is very much a personal dialogue with the deity, and though the writing of earlier polyphonic masters imbues the work, this is very much a piece of its time and not a work of archaicism. Martin uses his eight voices (two four-part choirs) very flexibly. The music is capable of being sung by a good amateur choir, but much is tricky and to sing it well requires a combination of poise, technical expertise, vocal flexibility and agility, as well as an empathy with Martin's intense sense of the personal nature of religion. The performance from Stephen Layton and the Holst Singers was a very fine one indeed, and the sheer beauty and dynamic range of the choir was stunning, along with their perfect poise in even the trickiest passages. Any performance of this work has occasional corners, and there were one or two here, but remarkably few and nothing hindered the flow of the work.

All that said, I have to confess that the performance left me highly conflicted. Whilst I appreciated the sheer skill of the choir (in fact I am singing the work myself next week, so it is one with which I am intimately familiar), I felt that Layton and his singers had missed the essential quality of the work, the sense of Martin's personal dialogue with the deity. Here, rather too often for my liking, Layton seemed content to hold up a passage to shape a phrase, encouraging us to admire the lovely scenery rather than consider the drama of our destination.

For me the Kyrie lacked a sense of urgency, and even the faster passages, though full of beauty, were a little too relaxed. In the Gloria the singers gave us a very sober sort of joy, again I wanted more urgency but the choir's intensity was superb in the Qui tollis section. During the Credo the singers' technical prowess showed up in the way that all the exposed passages happened quite naturally. A lovely hushed tone at Et Incarnatus est was followed by the tenors cutting through with Crucifixus and there was a lovely transparency to Et resurrexit. Again there was a beautiful transparency to the sound in the Sanctus though the performance seemed to luxuriate in the sound somewhat. The vividly urgent Pleni sun coeli was followed by a lovely Benedictus. For me the Hosanna passages were just too loud in the context of the church, though the Holst Singers is blessed with the ability of being able to sing loudly which retaining the beauty of tone and expressivity. For the Agnus Dei, Layton indulged in a bit of re-scoring so that choir one was sung by four soloists, and the main choir sang choir two. This had the effect of giving us a rich cushion of hushed sound from choir two, over which the choir one soloists sang their long line. But I missed the effect of the main long-limbed melody sung by a body of singers, and the individual voices of the soloists stood out a bit too much. This was finely done but, like other parts of the performance, not really what I wanted from the work.

We concluded with O Sacrum Convivium written in 1937 by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), and here again we were able to appreciate the fineness of the choir's sound as they responded to the lovely texture of Messiaen's music.

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