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Juan Perez Bocanegra, Giovanni Gabrieli, Bruckner, Arthur Bliss, Petr Eben, Schütz, John Gibbons, Jacob Handl, J S Bach, Jehan Alain and John Rutter: St Albans Chamber Choir, Onyx Brass, Tom Winpenny (organ), John Gibbons, Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, St Albans, 27.2.2010 (BBr)


Juan Pérez Bocanegra (?): Hanaq pachap kusikuynin

Giovanni Gabrieli: Buccinate in Neomenia Tuba

Bruckner: Christus factus est

Arthur Bliss: The world is charged with the grandeur of God

Petr Eben: Moto Ostinato (Musica Dominicalis)

Schütz: Psalm 100

John Gibbons: Woefully arrayed

Bruckner: Ecce sacerdos

Jacob Handl: Pater Noster

Giovanni Gabrieli: Exultet iam angelica

J S Bach: O Jesu Christ meins Lebens Licht

Jehan Alain: Litanies

John Rutter: Gloria

In my opinion, unaccompanied choral music should always be performed in a big space, such as the beautiful setting of Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, a building with an acoustic large enough to allow the music to really breathe. This was immediately audible in the performance of Bocanegra’s Hanaq pachap kusikuynin, performed offstage to thrilling effect. However, Gabrieli’s Buccinate suffered because of the acoustic because, with a full compliment of performers on stage, the ears hadn’t adjusted for the sound and thus the performance sounded muddied, which, wasn’t the fault of the choir, but with Bruckner’s glorious, there is no other word for it, motet Christus factus est we heard music and Cathedral in total harmony, the single bar of silence, just before the climax, was pregnant with expectation. The other Bruckner motet, Ecce sacerdos, was given in a shortened form, as an introit, and although one missed the full splendour of the piece, there was sufficient music to please.

The St Albans Chamber Choir is quite a large body, of over 40 voices, but it was still able to scale down its tone for the more intimate works of the programme, and the pieces by Schütz, Jacob Handl, a very restrained and subtle performance of his setting of the Lord’s Prayer, Gabrieli and J S Bach all spun their fine web of mysticism in truly magical performances.

To allow the singers to rest we were given two organ solos and in Jehan Alain’s magnificent, and startling, Litanies we heard the instrument to full effect. This was a fine performance by the Cathedral organist Tom Winpenny, but Petr Eben’s Moto Ostinato, the third movement of his suite Musica Dominicalis seemed commonplace by its side,

The rest of the programme was made up with three works from the latter part of the last century. Arthur Bliss’s setting of three poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins was created for the Aldeburgh Festival in 1969. The only time I have heard this piece was on a Lyrita LP of Bliss’s music issued in about 1971 and I have to admit that I wasn’t overly impressed so I welcomed the chance to hear it live – we seldom hear Bliss’s music these days and, although I doubt claims can be made for his being a major composer, there are some interesting works, such as the Colour Symphony, Music for Strings and the ballet Miracle in the Gorbals. This cantata proved to be quite an attractive piece, and the performance this evening showed that there is much to admire, and enjoy, here, but also it was too good insofar as it also showed the flaws in the work. Starting with a fine setting of the poem which gives the work its title, with full brass and declamatory choral writing, it is succeeded by a beautiful setting, for four part female choir, with an accompaniment for two flutes, of Heaven–Haven but it is the finale, The Starlight Night which isn’t up to the same level of inspiration, and no matter how fine the performance it cannot raise the music above its somewhat prosaic material. Perhaps because the words were chosen for Bliss, by Peter Pears, rather than his being given a free hand in choosing his texts the composer simply didn’t relate to the poem as well as he did to the others. Whatever the reason this is a fine piece, in general, and the failings of the finale should not preclude performance. Gibbons drew a performance which was both powerful and delicate, by turns, from his performers.

Conductor John Gibbons donned his composer’s cap for a setting of John Skelton, Woefully arrayed – it is a brave composer indeed who would write a piece whose title incorporates the word WOEFUL, for critics can be unpleasant animals at times! But I am not that kind of boy and I am very happy to report that here is a very well written piece for choir, with discrete accompaniment for brass and organ, which communicates, surely the object of all composers, and listening to comments from the audience during the interval it achieved its objective.

Finally, John Rutter’s splendid Gloria. This was an American commission and it is perhaps for this reason that there is a very welcome brashness and outgoing accent to the music. With brilliant writing for brass, with timpani and percussion, not to mention the most jubilant choral writing you can imagine, Rutter not only entertains but also praises. It’s easy to see why this work has become so popular, and it is to Rutter’s credit that he, unlike too many composers, knows what to do, how to do it and when to stop. Not a note is wasted in this piece, there simply isn’t the time, and when he’s finished saying what he has to say he brings things to an end without fuss. This made a rousing conclusion to a fine concert of great choral music, well presented in a glorious venue.

Bob Briggs


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