Wednesday 4 December 2019

Westminster Cathedral Choir at Choral at Cadogan

Westminster Cathedral Choir
Westminster Cathedral Choir
O magnum mysterium - songs of the Incarnation; Westminster Cathedral Choir, Peter Stevens; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 December 2019
An imaginative programme brings Westminster Cathedral Choir out of its usual habitat

Hearing performing group's outside their regular habitat can sometimes be illuminating, but not necessarily so. Last night (3 December 2019) the choir of Westminster Cathedral swapped the gloriously atmospheric cathedral (where the choir sings daily services from the apse behind the high altar), for the rather dryer acoustic of Cadogan Hall. The concert, an imaginative programme of music for Advent centred round the O Magnum mysterium text, was supposed to be conducted by master of music, Martin Baker, but illness meant that his place was taken by Peter Stevens, assistant master of music, thus adding an additional layer of disturbance to the proceedings.

The programme moved fluidly between the Renaissance and the present day, with settings of the O Magnum mysterium text by Victoria, Poulenc, Morten Lauridsen and Joanna Marsh, alongside Tallis' Videte Miraculum and O nata lux, and motets by Palestrina and Victoria, plus Bruckner's Ave Maria, Eric Whitacre's Lux aurumque and James MacMillan's O radiant dawn. Plainsong, of course, threaded its way through a lot of the Renaissance pieces and was explicitly in Tallis' Respond, Videte Miraculum, but the choir also included three pieces of plainsong which provided fine linkages.  There were two concessions to the more popular conception of the season, Howells' A spotless rose and Warlock's Bethlehem Down.

The choir fielded some 16 or so trebles, with eight adult singing men on the back row as tenors and basses, and a mix of two adult counter-tenors and two boys as altos. Some of the boys looked alarmingly young, one tiny boy seemed completely dominated by his huge black folder yet was clearly singing lustily. One of the eternal miracles of boys choirs is that the boys can seem to spend the entire concert not concentrating and not singing, yet producing a miraculous sound. Here there was a wonderful unselfconsciousness about them, they did not seem to be particularly fazed by being plonked on the Cadogan Hall stage.
There were elements of uncertainty in the proceedings, with some pieces taking half a bar or so to settle, perhaps an indication of the unsettled nature of the performance following Baker's unfortunate withdrawal. The blend of voices was not blandly smoothed out, with a lovely sense of individual voices within the mix though occasionally the sound of the two adult counter-tenors seemed to rise out of the mix in a way which was unfortunate.

There was plenty to enjoy in the evening, and for me some of the highlights were the performances of the plainchant, sung by the full choir in a strong, fluid and flexible way. You could understand the way that plainchant is very much the choir's lifeblood. In Tallis' O nata lux, Stevens really relished the final false relation, whilst the same composer's Videte miraculum, sung with a lovely richness of texture, seemed to fly by, completely belying the work's length. In both the Palestrina and Victoria motets, there was an admirable sense of the choir's familiarity with the style and the music, the larger scale paragraphs were rendered coherently.

Bruckner's Ave Maria gave us a startlingly different sound-world to the familiar one of adult sopranos and contraltos, and it brought a crystalline intensity to the work's climax. The two Poulenc motets, O magnum mysterium and Quem vidistis pastores?, perhaps neither perfect nor beautifully polished, had a directness and a naturalness, an understanding of Poulenc's tricky style, which made the pieces satisfying.

This sense of directness and the lack of surface gloss or luxuriating in the harmonies meant that I found Morten Lauridsen's O magnum mysterium rather transformed and it was ultimately rather moving. There was a similar clearness and clarity to the sound in Eric Whitacre's Lux aurumque with a lovely soprano solo, again this crystalline sound-world suits the music very much. James MacMillan's O radiant dawn has become familiar to the point of ubiquity, but here it was bright and confident. Joanna Marsh's O magnum mysterium used quite close harmonies, with a flowing treble line on top, and an interesting use of major/minor harmonies, to create something quite concentrated with a strong ending.

The concert reminded me that I need to check the music list at Westminster Cathedral and make sure that I hear the choir on home territory soon.

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