Antony PITTS (b. 1969)
Missa Unitatis [25:05]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Ave verum (1952) [2:25]
Jean MOUTON (before 1459-1522)
Nesciens mater [3:48]
Den signade dag [2:12]
Hemlig stod jag [4:15]
Nico MUHLY (b. 1981)
Spiral Mass (2014) [14:21]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Laudi alla vergine Maria (1888) [5 :41]
Jacobus CLEMENS NON PAPA (1510/1515?-1555/1556)
Ego flos campi (2:48)
Ēriks EŠENVALDS (b. 1977)
Spring, the Sweet Spring [3:23]
James McVinnie (organ)
Netherlands Chamber Choir/Stephen Layton
Capella Pratensis/Stratton Bull
Nationaal Vrouwen Jeugdkoor/Wilma ten Wolde
rec. 2011-16, various venues in the Netherlands
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72711 [64:06]
This compelling programme is performed by three different choirs. Twelve names appear in the list of members of the celebrated Netherlands Chamber Choir, currently directed by Peter Dijkstra. Capella Pratensis is an eight-person, male-voice ensemble specialising in Renaissance polyphony ‘whilst also venturing into new music inspired by the polyphonic tradition’. Their Director, Stratton Bull, is also one of the singers. The Nationaal Vrouwen Jeugdkoor (Netherlands Female Youth Choir) is a larger group, its members ranging in age from 16 to 29. Their beautifully pure voices are heard to touching effect in two traditional songs from the Dalarna region of Sweden. Den signade dag (‘The blessed day’), based on a traditional religious text, is sung in unison. The text of Hemlig stod jag (‘Hidden I stood’) tells a darker tale, and the performance features aspects of traditional Swedish singing that create a very particular atmosphere in a piece that also begins in unison but in which, thereafter, the part writing is enlarged to create a richer texture. After a slightly hesitant opening note, the choir produces a fine performance of Poulenc’s Ave Verum, and their reading Verdi’s Laudi alla vergine Maria is equally successful. A few noises off should not disturb the listener, though I think maybe one of them did slightly disturb the young singers. Eriks Ešenvalds sets a text that Britten also chose for his Spring Symphony. The Latvian composer goes further, and more literally, in producing birdsong at the end of each verse, and its rhythmic incarnation at the end of the work is delightful. Wilma ten Wolde directs these splendid performances.
Capella Pratensis give superb readings of the two renaissance motets. These are historically informed performances, an aspect that places them rather outside this reviewer’s field of competence. What will strike the non-expert listener, however, is the extreme assurance of the singing, and a richness of sonority that in no way undermines the clarity of the part-writing.
Nico Muhly was a new name to me, but a minimum of research reveals him to be an American composer with many a film credit to his name – The Reader amongst them – as well as what might be termed ‘crossover’ projects. He views himself primarily as a composer of classical music, however. Anyone who enjoys the music of Morten Lauridsen or the Baltic and Scandinavian choral composers will enjoy his Spiral Mass, though the musical language is rather more advanced by comparison. The writing for choir and organ is brilliant, and the Netherlands Chamber Choir, organist James McVinnie and Stephen Layton, deliver an outstanding performance. There is much that is beautiful in the work, and not a little that is moving, especially the Agnus Dei, calm confidence rather than an impassioned plea for peace. The music speaks directly to the listener, and certainly far more directly than the composer’s descriptive note in the booklet.
The same might be said of Anthony Pitts’ description of the Credo of his Missa Unitatis. He begins by stating that it is his wife’s favourite amongst his compositions, and this is by far the most revealing thing he has to say. The description that follows might well be comprehensible to a listener with access to the score, but means nothing at all to anybody else and is worthless as a listening guide. Why do composers write about their own works in this way? Once again, however, and happily, the music itself is totally accessible. Unusually, for a setting of the Credo, there seems little attempt to illustrate the different stages of the text, preferring instead a lively, rather jazzy, non-stop setting that really swings. I’m not sure about its integration into the work as a whole, which is rather more serious of intent. There are many echoes of earlier music, with the odd dose of organum and harmonies that, whilst rarely straying far from tonality, are frequently spiced up by false relations such as you might hear in early music. The work was composed for and first performed by two different choirs, each with its own identity, function and purpose. The composer’s aim in writing the work was to promote the idea of ‘bringing together’, the unity to be found in the work’s title. Even here, however, when seeking to explain the ideas behind the work, and that it can be performed by a single choir or in a double choir version, the composer’s explanation closes down lines of comprehension.
Missa Unitatis is a splendid work, superbly written for voices. It will appeal to any choral music lover looking for something a little out of the ordinary. It is impossible to imagine a finer performance than this one from Capella Pratensis and the Netherlands Chamber Choir under the no doubt inspiring direction of Stephen Layton. The theme of unity, togetherness, inclusion, has led the planners to split the five components of the Mass and distribute them throughout the programme, with the other works acting as interludes. (Muhly’s Mass is also delivered in two doses.) You might subscribe to this idea, but if not the player’s programming functions will come into play. Either way, this is a profoundly satisfying and varied programme. Its disparate nature means that the recording dates and venues vary widely, but the sound quality is consistently fine.