Friday, 21 August 2020

Taking us on a remarkable journey: the choir of St John's College, Cambridge in a 'Pious Anthems and Voluntaries', a programme of Michael Finnissy premieres

Michael Finnissy Pious Anthems and Voluntaries; Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, Andrew Nethsingha; SIGNUM
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 August 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
The culmination of Michael Finnissy's residency at the college, and a celebration of the chapel's 150th anniversary proves to be a contemporary sequence in which the composer combines a reflection of the past with a striking present

Michael Finnissy Pious Anthems and Voluntaries; Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, Andrew Nethsingha; SIGNUM
St John's College, Cambridge celebrated the 150th anniversary of its Victorian gothic chapel last year, but the college itself is far older and has its roots in St John's Infirmary of 1200, the outline of whose original chapel can still be seen. The chapel's choir is, of course, renowned and in order to celebrate the anniversary Andrew Nethsingha, musical director, invited the composer Michael Finnissy to be composer in residence for two years. Finnissy would write four unaccompanied motets for the choir and the project would culminate in the anniversary year of 2019. Each of Finnissy's motets would take an existing older piece as its template, thus in way reflecting the multi-layering of the college's history.

I attended the Evensong in 2017 when Andrew Nethsingha and the choir of St John's College, Cambridge premiered Michael Finnissy's Dum transisset Sabbatum inspired by John Taverner's motet of the same name. The project is now complete and has culminated in a recording of all of the works Finnissy wrote during his two year residency. The project expanded and changed somewhat, and as well as writing four choral works Finnissy wrote partnering instrumental commentaries, and the composers on which he based his music moved from the 16th century, so we have John Taverner, Thomas Tallis, JS Bach and Michael Tippett as inspirations, and the Bach-inspired piece is a cantata which introduces other instrumental forces besides the organ.

Finnissy also created an overall arch for the structure of the cycle, so that it has become something more than just an assemblage of works written for St John's and there is in fact a clear dramaturgical sense to the Biblical events referred to. Pious Anthems and Voluntaries features all of Michael Finnissy's music written for Andrew Nethsingha and the choir of St John's College, Cambridge, as part of the residency; three motets, Dum transsiset Sabbatum, Videte Miraculum, Plebs Angelica, the cantata Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn, three organ works, Dum transsiset Sabbatum - double, Videte Miraculum - double, Plebs Angelica - alternativo and an instrumental Commentary on ‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern. For the recording the choir is joined by organists Glen Dempsey and James Anderson-Besant, Sarah O'Flynn (flute), and Cecily Ward (violin). The recording is issued on the choir's own label which is done in association with Signum Records.

Michael Finnissy wrote his first commission for St John's in 2014 for Advent, St John the Baptist, and the choir followed this by immersing itself in the music of Jonathan Harvey on disc with DEO [see my review], and the current project arose out of Nethsingha's wish to immerse the choir in the music of another contemporary composer. Writing interesting and challenging music for a choir like St John's (with a top line made up of boys, and the remaining adults needing to fit learning music in with a busy academic schedule along with the choir's regular service commitments) is a particular skill. Jonathan Harvey had been a chorister himself and his son was a chorister, which perhaps helped. Finnissy seems to have been able to use the pre-existing works from the choir's repertoire on which he based his music as a useful building block to enable his music to flourish within the choir's restrictions. Not that is sounds restricted, quite the opposite, each of the choral pieces is remarkably rich and complex, and what is fascinating is the way that the original inspiration is detectable yet Finnissy's own voice is there too.

We start with unaccompanied choir, Dum transsiset Sabbatum based on John Tavener's Respond. Finnissy has preserved something of Tavener's structure with its mix of plainchant and polyphony. Finnissy has written modern polyphony which is gloriously rich and expressive, yet clearly within the tradition. The work makes a wonderfully expressive and strong start to the cycle. These are not short pieces, they are very much festival works; this one lasts over eight minutes, and Finnissy uses the time to allow himself to explore his chosen medium. This could not be anything but 21st century music, and it packs a powerful emotional punch, yet it fits expressively into the idea of a choir singing Renaissance polyphony.

For the organ double, played by Glen Dempsey, Finnissy bases the work not on Tavener but on his own motet just performed, and with an organ and a fine organist (which Dempsey certainly is), Finnissy is at liberty to push things somewhat further. The result is certainly not a pale imitation of the motet, but a rich, complex and dramatic complement. 

For Videte Miraculum the focus turns to Thomas Tallis' six-part Respond. Finnissy's textures here are different, yet his voice is the same, and he clearly responds to Tallis' music with something which has a poised elegance to it all of its own. The harmonies are often clear but with a terrific edge to them and the music has moments of powerful intensity. In his booklet note the composer talks about the crisis of the Renaissance and of discovering John Donne's Divine Poems with its vision of the Annunciation. And the music does indeed seem to have moments when it approaches the mystical.

The organ double, again played by Glen Dempsey, is substantial and it uses sections of the motet in versions as if dimly remembered, but also uses Finnissy's brand of rich polyphony. The whole is a fascinating meditation which takes us from the 21st century to the 16th, but whereas the motet approached mysticism this organ commentary seems to get far darker.

The next instrumental work provides something of a lighter context, a trio for organ (Glen Dempsey), flute (Sarah O'Flynn) and violin (Cecily Ward) which seems to positively dance, and is based on the chorale Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern. This forms a fascinating prelude to Finnissy's cantata Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn which is based on Bach's cantata BWV 96. For the first movement, we have the chorale melody in the choir surrounded by the sort of dancing instrumental textures from the previous movement, and to the choir the cantata adds organ, flute and violin. As Finnissy gets further and further away from Bach, yet never leaves him entirely, the opening chorale movement fascinates indeed. The second movement features a fine solo from treble Freddie Harrison, with the angular outline of Finnissy's vocal line creating a powerful expressive device. The third movement is a solo for counter-tenor Hugh Cutting with organ and a delightful counter-melody from the flute, again Bach is present but Finnissy makes the music edgier and more angular. The fourth movement is a limpid tenor solo from Gopal Kambo, he and organist James Anderson-Besant (who shares organ duties in the cantata with Glen Dempsey) make something clear and beautiful from Finnissy's angular intensity. Bass James Adams is pair with organ and violin for his rather restless and unsettling solo, though as voice and violin wander you can also hear Christ's steady tread in the music too. The final movement is a quietly intense chorus and in his commentary on the work conductor Andrew Nethsingha talks about Finnissy 'melting the Lutheran chorale until it becomes something quite different'.

The cantata is fascinating and remarkable in the way Finnissy has been able to bring the intensity of his own writing into a work where the delineation of Bach's original is quite clear. It also makes dramaturgical sense in the way it sits within the sequence of the music on this set, but I am quite positive that the cantata will make a remarkable stand-alone work. For the commentary Finnissy goes for Bach's unfinished fugue which was intended for the Fantasia BWV 562, and in his writing for flute, violin and organ Finnissy keeps Bach's original in clear mind, whilst introducing his own 'interruptions' which seem to eventually take over.

Plebs Angelica was Michael Tippett's only motet, written in 1943 and full of his remarkable sense of poly-rhythms, yet Tippett was also reflecting the 16th century. In his Plebs Angelica, Finnissy eschews polyphony and poly-rhythms, instead he writes for double choir with one singing Latin and the other his own English translation of the text. The result returns us to the sense of the mystical as Finnissy uses his two choirs to create some remarkably shimmering chords. At times the music gets intense indeed, with wide spacings between upper and lower. This music sounds complex and edgy, but the poise with which the choir sings it brings a real radiance to Finnissy's writing.

We finish with a final instrumental commentary, but as he used two choirs in Plebs Angelica, then Finnissy uses two organists (Dempsey and Anderson-Besant) for the Plebs Angelica - alternativo. This starts quietly, with Finnissy using the two sets of hands and feet to create delicate yet elaborate textures but as the piece progresses (and it is the longest of the set) it gets truly terrifying.

I have to admit that I have a relatively limited taste for the current fashion of asking contemporary composers to create reflections of existing older works, though I have also to admit that I have partaken myself  (having written a Videte Miraculum as a pair for the Tallis for Alistair Dixon). But Michael Finnissy convinces in the brilliant way that he combines old and new, making the pre-existing a springboard for his own thoughts and intentions and in some of these pieces, taking us to some remarkable places.

Andrew Nethsingha and his choir, along with the instrumentalists, are on superb form here and all concerned bring a naturalness and ease to Finnissy's music which makes any angularity, edginess and complexity seem like a natural and necessary expressive device. The remarkable poise with which the choir sings the music is superb, as is the stunning dexterity of the two organists and the other instrumentalists.

This was clearly intended as a single disc set but the material has overrun slightly. Yet at under 85 minutes one can quite easily sit down and listen to the cycle from beginning to end. The brilliance of the conception and the performances is that each piece works on its own, but the whole takes us on a remarkable journey. Essential listening.

Michael Finnissy (born 1946) - Dum transisset Sabbatum
Michael Finnissy - Dum transisset Sabbatum - double
Michael Finnissy - Videte miraculum
Michael Finnissy - Videte miraculum - double
Michael Finnissy - Commentary on 'Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern'
Michael Finnissy - Cantata 'Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn'
Michael Finnissy - Commentary of BWV 562
Michael Finnissy - Plebs angelica
Michael Finnissy - Plebs angelica - double
The choir of St John's College, Cambridge
Glen Dempsey (organ)
James Anderson-Besant (organ)
Sarah O'Flynn (flute)
Cecily Ward (violin)
Andrew Nethsingha (director)
Recorded at the chapel of St John's College, Cambridge 14-18 July 2019
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD624 2 CDs

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