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The Choir of Uppsala Cathedral

16 June 2009

by Roderic Dunnett

THE CHOIR of Uppsala Cathedral, founded in the 1860s, has long been among northern Europe’s most assured exponents of Renaissance and baroque music, as well as exemplary in performing and com­missioning new repertoire.

For its recent appearance at St John’s, Smith Square, under its dir­ector, Milke Falck, the choir focused on the French Baroque. A successor to Lully, Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726) wrote music that adorned Louis XIV’s court chapel at Versailles. His magnificent Grands Motets were published between 1729 and 1734, but are still relatively little known in Britain, except as cham­pioned by Edward Higginbottom and his choir at New College, Oxford.

Another champion is the scholar Dr Lionel Sawkins, whose precisely catalogued editions were used in this inspiring St John’s concert. The idea of placing motets by Lalande along­side Handel — notably a pair of settings of Nisi Dominus (Psalm 126) by the two composers — was his; and he conducted one of the most affecting pieces, Regina coeli et laetare, Lalande’s shortest motet, in which paired baritone and bass soli build (via a trio with soprano) to a hauntingly serene treatment of “ora pro nobis”, in turn yielding to cascading alleluias. The effect here, with Lalande’s accomplished con­trasts, was exhilarating.

Handel’s instrumental expertise was recalled by the distinctive, fresh-sounding organ-playing of Sarah Kim, who is studying with Olivier Latry and Michel Bouvard in Paris. She proved an enchanting per­former, interacting with the first-rate period ensemble The Band of Instruments in Handel’s G-minor and F-major concertos from opus 4.

Framing this rewarding and informative concert were two large-scale masterpieces by Lalande. Veni, Creator Spiritus, his first important, markedly individual work, dating from the 1680s, when he was only 26, was presented employing vocal and instrumental forces similar in size to those the composer would have been able to draw on at the Versailles chapel, which he had joined a year earlier.

Two choirs are deployed for a substantial text evoking the Holy Spirit to extract vivid contrasts: the solo for haut-contre (high tenor) “Accende lumen sensibus” (“Kindle a light in our minds”); a dramatic choral movement with tenor, “Hostem repellas longius” (“Scatter our foes afar”); or a graphic setting for two sopranos and baritone of “Tu septiformis munere” (“Seven gifts are thine to give”).

Lalande died scarcely three years after Bach took over at Leipzig, and yet the calibre of his later works — including a superb repertoire for violin — brings him closer to the high baroque of Bach and Rameau than to the exploratory era of Lully and his librettist Quinault.

Mightiest of the works on offer, delivered with precision and aplomb by this zestful Swedish choir force, was Dixit Dominus (“The Lord said unto my Lord”), a psalm also fam­ously set by Handel (the latter’s extensive setting, had time per­mitted, would have been included also). Here, the same haut-contre, Leif Aruhn-Solén, came gloriously into his own, dextrously executing one of the most famously challen­ging of all Baroque displays, Lalande’s boisterous setting in this context of the Gloria, during which the soloist rides thrillingly above strong chorus-writing.

Before that, the soprano’s sen­s-itive aria with oboe solo “De torrente in via bibet” felt spiritually akin to Bach, there was a Purcellian (or rather, a Lullian) spring to the chorus’s rendering at “splendoribus sanctorum”), and excitement in the shattering bass solo “Juravit Dom­inus”, which Richard Fallas executed with assurance.

This admirable concert made its point perfectly: the music of Michel-Richard de Lalande should be with us to stay.

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