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Two Magnificats in Harrogate

by
31 July 2015

by Roderic Dunnett

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JOHN RUTTER and Andrew Carter — the one in his mid-seventies, the other approaching 70 this September — are two of the most popular choral composers writing today. Their music is vivacious, attractive, and tuneful, and for choirs it is easy but not untaxing, and invariably pleases the singers themselves and their audiences.

For its latest concert, Harrogate Choral Society, under its conductor, Andrew Padmore, chose to pair the settings of the Magnificat by the two composers, something that happens relatively rarely. Proficiently sung throughout, the two works revealed interesting differences in approach, which was, in its own way, instructive.

Carter’s Magnificat, set in Latin, gained extra impetus and drive from the composer’s presence in the audience on the night (Rutter will be in Harrogate later as star guest conductor for the Halcyon Youth Choir). It is a well-contrasted work, dark in places (including near the start) as well as buoyant, and drawing together many of the stylistic traits that make Carter’s music satisfying to perform and listen to.

I was impressed by the skipping lightness of “all generations shall call me blessed”; by numerous eloquent modulations between or within sections, often involving skilled transitions from one voice to another; by the earnestness that offsets the triple time of “his mercy is on them”; and, likewise, the orchestral touches: two flutes, double bass, and bassoon that characterise the section “Quia fecit mihi magna”, or the swooping horns, cymbals, and tympani that add life to “Et exultavit”, a clever setting where the women of the choir positively danced, following the commanding repeats of the men’s insistent “Deposuit potentes”.

An interspersed passage, “Blest are the pure in heart”, was sung in English by the carefully rehearsed children’s chorus, the Harrogate Ladies’ College Gallery Choir. Then lightly descending triplets recurred for “Suscepit Israel”, and led on to a magnificently built climax — almost Elgarian in feel — which set the seal on “Abraham et semini eius”. I almost wished that this thrilling passage supplied the conclusion; for only the Gloria, with some use of syncopation, seemed to lack something in inspiration.

No matter: the vibrancy of the Harrogate choir gave this rather original Magnificat both cogency and excitement, the aptness of Carter’s word-setting felt endlessly persuasive, and the orchestra, the Amici Ensemble, rose to the occasion with aplomb.

Rutter’s output is so well known that it almost seems superfluous to comment; and when the full chorus offered “The Lord bless you and keep you” as an encore, one was on very safe and familiar ground. But from the three opening hymn-settings — both children and then adults (“Look at the World” is a kind of modern Benedicite, cheered by fine touches from the horns) revealing the high quality of balance which would be a feature of the whole concert — one sensed the love of memorable melody that is perhaps Rutter’s most endearing characteristic.

As his many fans will know, Rutter, too, intersperses a passage early in his Magnificat: the medieval “Of a rose, a lovely rose”, whose denouement (“The fourth branch it sprang to hell, The devil’s power for to fell’) put me in mind of Sir Arthur Bliss’s late choral work Shield of Faith. Rutter, like Carter, uses word repetition imaginatively and characterfully, and also relevantly to drive home a section of text.

The Magnificat is attractively shared out between the voices (upper voices get a good share); and it, too, has a periodic dark feel, notably at the fugal “Fecit potentiam”, with use of chromatics at “et exaltavit humiles”. The soprano soloist, Kate Kelly, fared especially well paired with the chorus for “he, remembering his mercy”.

Much of Rutter’s use of the orchestra suggested a pastoral feel (at “Esurientes”, for instance). But one of the most satisfying passages for choir and composer alike was the extended Marian appeal taken from a famous longer prayer by St Fulbert of Chartres (c.960-1028): “Sancta Maria . . . refove flebiles; ora pro populo”.

These intercessions provided a fascinating and unusual — and surely apt — addition, the chorus’s words finely enunciated (as everywhere in this concert) before Padmore drove the rest of the doxology to its exciting, almost Waltonian, conclusion.

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