Thursday 9 March 2017

Sacred and Profane: Netherlands Chamber Choir

Peter Dijkstra and Netherlands Chamber Choir ©FoppeSchut
Peter Dijkstra and Netherlands Chamber Choir ©FoppeSchut
Britten, Jackson, Berio, Werle; Nederlands Kamerkoor, Peter Dijktstra; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 8 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Impressive technical control in a challenging programme of 20th century music

The Netherlands Chamber Choir (Nederlands Kamerkoor), conductor Peter Dijkstra, made its first appearance in the UK in 15 years (see my interview with Peter Dijkstra) on Wednesday 8 March 2017 at Cadogan Hall as part of the Choral at Cadogan series. The programme, entitled Sacred and Profane, featured Benjamin Britten's late choral work Sacred and Profane alongside his early Hymn to St Cecilia, plus Gabriel Jackson's Ave, Regina caelorum, Luciano Berio's Cries of London, and two pieces by the Swedish composer Lars Johan Werle, Orpheus and Canzone 126 di Francesco Petrarca.

The programme opened with Britten's Hymn to St Cecilia, a setting of WH Auden (one of his final collaborations with the poet) which was written on the boat returning to the UK from the USA in 1942. Peter Dijkstra kept the opening section moving, drawing a lightness of texture from his singers, with a lovely transparency in the soprano lines. The English diction was more than creditable, the singers really made something of the words. The middle section was impressively light, airy, fast and accurate too, a very impressive technical and musical feat. Dijkstra made the movement full of contrasts, between loud and soft, between the fast moving texture and the slower underlying melody. The final section was surprisingly quiet, and very effective too, with the light upper choral lines over quasi pizzicato from the basses. There was an affecting soprano solo, with a very striking final section, sung strongly and very pointed, with a beautifully controlled final chorus.

Gabriel Jackson's Ave, Regina coelorum is something of a surprise in that Jackson combines quite traditional choral textures with an electric guitar part (played by Wiek Hijmans).
With the concert's theme of Sacred and Profane, this fitted well with the sacred text combined with a very secular instrument. Jackson's choral writing was very tradition, chant-inspired which contrasted with the guitar's rock-style distortions, whilst for the middle section which was full of melismatic passages for the choir, the electric guitar provided more discreet accompaniment. There were some very striking textures, combining the beautifully transparent choral textures with the vibrant guitar.

The final work in the first half was Cries of London by Luciano Berio (1925-2003), which was sung by 15 singers (the full group numbered 17), placed in a semi-circle. The work was written originally for the Kings Singers, but Berio re-wrote it for eight-part mixed chorus in 1978. Whilst Berio uses the traditional text, and has individual voices bringing out the different cries, the music itself is a long way from street music and echoes Berio's very individual voice. Complex and challenging for the singers, it is not without its humour which the various singers brought out adeptly. From the busy use of tuning forks, it was clear that Berio's music was a great challenge to these experienced singers. You sense it pushing them to their limits at times, but the result was highly virtuosic in they way they handled the complex textures and harmonies, though occasionally I wanted the performance to be a bit more theatrical.

The second half opened with a pair of works by the Swedish composer Lars Johan Werle (1926-2001)/. Orpheus set Shakespeare's text 'Orpheus with his lute' in a setting which was a long way from the traditional part-song. Werle used a great variety of different choral textures, and whilst the piece was highly effective I did not think that he got to the heart of the poem. This was followed by a Petrach setting, Canzone 126 di Francesco Pettrarca. This started off in a neo-Renaissance style, sung radiantly by the coir, but gradually Werle introduces more modern techniques including spoken passages, weaving the more traditional writing in and out of the modern to bring out the emotional effect of the words.

The final work in the programme was Benjamin Britten's Sacred and Profane, written in 1975 for Peter Pears' Wilbye Consort of Voices. Setting five medieval texts, the piece is a tricky and challenging one for singers and not always easy for the audience. Britten's writing can be quite dense and lacks the easy sense of appeal which applies to his earlier choral music. St Godric's Hymn started out wonderfully vibrant, before dying to a hush at the end. I mon waxe wod was very fast with the singers showing good control of the tricky textures. Lenten is com was lightly sung with a madrigalian feel which belied the music's complexity. This is a long piece and Peter Dijkstra and the singers showed impressive control of the structure. The long night started with an echo of the previous movement, before winter broke vigorously in. Yif ic of luce can was intimate but with scrunchy harmonies which became quite edgy and austere. Carol was catchy but with a kick, and Ye that pasen by was quietly intense. Finally A death was powerful stuff and not at all comfortable, with a vividly up tempo finish.

Not only was the technical control of Peter Dijkstra and the choir impressive, but the singers showed great command of the Middle English texts.

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