TO CATCH two works by contemporary American composers of
different generations would seem to be reason enough to venture to
Cirencester and hear for the first time the Cantores Chamber Choir,
performing in St John the Baptist's, with its magnificent early-
15th-century tower and buttresses.
The two works are the exquisitely reflective Sure On This
Shining Night by Morten Lauridsen, who is now in his
seventies, and the somewhat exhaustingly jaunty, minimalist setting
of St John of the Cross's poem "Dark Night of the Soul" by the
Norwegian-born Ola Gjeilo, now 36.
Nothing, however, prepared me for the level of excellence I
encountered. Directed by John Holloway, with crucial and varied
keyboard support from John Wright, Cantores is without doubt one of
the most meticulously rehearsed and magnificently refined ensembles
I have heard in the past year.
Bach's funeral motet Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit
auf, one of his lesser known, unveiled some of the many
details that place Cantores in the front rank. Their turnout
(scarlet, black) is impeccable, as was their tuning, a
well-maintained legato, and a finessed interplay that rendered
Bach's counterpoint lucid, never clouded. This appeal to, and trust
in, the Holy Spirit ("Sondern der Geist selbst vertritt")
displayed the near-perfect shadings of the upper lines, soprano and
alto, and the spirited engagement and sustaining of the basses; the
expressive tenor line would prove itself later.
Most astonishing of all at the outset was the unconscious and
unrehearsed period-like sound produced by the Cantores String
Ensemble: this Bach really had twang.
Here, as indeed throughout the concert (including two
marvellously expounded instrumental works by Boyce and Handel) -
except perhaps in Monteverdi's Dixit Dominus, which felt
uneasier and initially muddy - John Holloway's gift for hitting on
just the right pace - right for the players, the singers, and for
the work in question - yielded dividends galore. Where the music
danced, it really did so, acquiring a joyous expressiveness. Where
it growled, as in the same Monteverdi piece (grim lines from Psalm
110, "The Lord said unto my Lord"), it seethed and was vital: the
violent, threatening ". . . im- plebit ruinas, conquassabit
capita" was especially dramatic and convincing.
Gjeilo's "Dark Night of the Soul" was intended to exemplify the
concert's theme, "The Power of the Spirit", text and music "imbued
with medieval mystery". St John of the Cross's famous words ("One
dark night, fired with love's urgent longings - ah, the sheer
grace") certainly have that effect.
The performance, abetted by rich cantilenas from the lead
violinist Peter Stacey, was excitable, agitated, even positively
violent. What Gjeilo's setting does not allow, it seems, is balance
or delicacy: there is no restraint, and simply too much going on.
You could see the sopranos, for instance, were enunciating
beautifully; yet St John's text was buried. It proved a loud,
rumbustious thrumming, but, in the end, not much more.
One of the feathers in the cap of Cantores is the sheer number
of choir members - in all parts - able to serve up solos not just
competently, but stylishly and distinctively. Every one, without
exception, proved memorable, and there were many. These solo
offerings had personality, vocal colouring, rhythmic flair. It was
like hearing the beautifully differentiated colours of a symphony
(or chamber) orchestra. Paired sopranos ("quia respexit";
"dispersit") and sopranos or altos ("esurientes")
in Monteverdi's Magnificat (not the 1610, but the late setting from
his 1640 collec- tion Selva Morale e Spirituali) stood
out, but there were so many more.
The Bach aside, two works stood out for me. One, not
surprisingly, is Lauridsen's enchanting setting of a poem by the
hugely influential, Pulitzer Prize-winning James Agee (1909-55),
which might almost ("Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder.
. .) be a modern descendant of St John's inspiring 16th-century
verse. Here the tenors and basses were superlative, and a tenor
descant to the ensuing tutti no less so (a soprano cantilena
likewise). It was particularly magical with piano: splendidly
restrained, atmospheric, and simply con- ceived, but never banal or
naïve - in these hands, an obvious masterpiece.
This led on to 15 minutes of utterly thrilling Baroque.
Francesco Cavalli (1602-76) a choir member of St Mark's, Venice,
under Monteverdi in his teens, and himself appointed choirmaster a
quarter of a century after his teacher's death, produced an
eight-part Magnificat that is more than a match for his master. In
some ways, it seems to anticipate, or usher in, the later high
Baroque. The spirit of the dance prevails, vibrant and joyous.
There are exciting outburstsat "omnes generationes" and
"in brachio suo": dynamic surges showing off the choir's
dramatic power. At "Dispersit superbos", the music harks
back to classic Monteverdian practice, the secunda
prattica. The "sicut locutus" is more Cavallian -
lighter, buoyant, delightful; and the doxology is a treat - joyous
but artful. The elegance of the inner parts shone throughout. The
enchanting outer lines spoke for themselves.