A BROWSE through previous concerts by Newbury Chamber Choir is revealing. Its members have contributed their share of Handel and Vivaldi, Mozart and Brahms. But what is eye-catching is its more unfamiliar repertoire.
This capable and well-tuned choir prides itself on including music that is undeservedly overlooked. It has engaged with the beguiling medieval Play of Daniel, reaching back to the 13th century. The early Baroque yielded Carissimi’s oratorio Jonas; and, from a generation later, the Missa Dolorosa by the Venetian Antonio Caldara (also featured on 25 March at St Lawrence’s, Eastcote, in Middlesex, by the Sine Nomine Singers: www.sinenomine.org.uk).
Shining light on two composers who achieved a kind of “first”, the Newbury choir has introduced sacred concertos by Giovanni Paolo Cima (1570-1622), a contemporary of Monteverdi credited with inventing the trio sonata; and, more crucially, the choral work Rappresentatione di Anima, et di Corpo (1600), by the slightly older Emilio de’ Cavalieri (c.1550-1602), hailed as the inventor of the oratorio.
We owe it to the ensemble’s highly experienced and versatile conductor, Edward Lambert (whose own compositions have also featured at these concerts), that the choir has just presented an evening at St John’s, Newbury, devoted entirely to the works of a key and yet neglected Baroque figure: the Bohemian-born Heinrich Biber (1644-1704), who was latterly Imperial Court Kapellmeister at Salzburg and a protégé of the Archbishop.
Biber was a violin virtuoso, and his intensely complex Mystery Sonatas — well worth seeking out — are on a par with, say, Bach’s Chaconne in importance in the repertoire. A violin sonata, in F, formed a bracing centrepiece to this concert: Ellen Bundy displayed with impressive ease the extraordinary dexterity required.
To have two full-length choral works by a composer as unfamiliar as Biber juxtaposed was, indeed, the rarest of occasions, and one to be savoured. It was the final work, Biber’s late-ish Requiem Mass in F minor, that made the most powerful impact. It gave a sense of the full flowering of the Baroque; and this was thanks not least to some beautifully shaped solo singing from Cantores Michaelis, choral scholars of Southampton University Choir.
Biber gives the chorus resplendent music in the Kyries, which made a strong impact at the outset. Edgy violins in the Dies Irae usher in “Quantus tremor”, just as a tremendous outburst from the basses is saved for “Rex tremendae majestatis”, prefaced by finely assured choral singing at “Quid sum miser?”
The versification of ”Recordare” has some affinity with the Stabat Mater, and here the soprano and alto solos excelled, heralding the invasion of the splendid bass soloist, Elliott Titcombe, with “Confutatis maledictis”. The choir tenors’ almost surprising attacca at “Lacrimosa dies illa” and the powerful impact of the basses (“Judicandus homo reus”) underlined the ability of the lower voices, and confirmed all the forces’ satisfying command of the score.
All the solos brought distinction to the Offertory, right through to the repeated choral “Quam olim Abrahae”. Its feel is indeed dramatic, calling to mind Monteverdi’s last opera, The Coronation of Poppea. Upper voices shone in the excitable Hosannas, and basses again in the second Agnus Dei, where the underlining trombone added richness to the texture. Indeed, the choir and orchestra as a whole brought not just energy and drive, but a wealth of expression, to this thrusting Baroque score.
The overall effect of the Requiem was immensely satisfying, and the beautifully effected attacca into the “Lux Aeterna”, together with some bewitching pianissimo singing at the return of the “Requiem aeternam”, reinforced the striking impression made by Lambert’s carefully coaxed choral forces.
It would be good to be able to say that the much earlier work, Biber’s Missa in contrapuncto, showed up the Salzburg composer’s compositional skills equally. Certainly, here he uses polyphony with the assurance of his Renaissance predecessors. Tinges of chromaticism colour the first and third Kyries, and the stilled choir at the “incarnatus” in the Creed bizarrely anticipates the “amazed” choruses in Italian opera.
The chorus, on instruction, pointed each syllable forcefully — arguably too much; and this had a slightly negative effect in a work that cried out for more touches of seamless legato. But it did lend several passages nobility; the Gloria’s opening, in a sort of semi-staccato matched by the orchestra, gained from slightly didactic precision.
The feel as a whole was of a primitive Baroque, lacking the touching “affect” crucial to, say, Lully or Purcell. The “Quoniam” perked up, with brass encouragement, and the close positively pirouetted, as the music for cellos and basses danced, too: a charming effect. A bold “Crucifixus” underlined the sensation of undeveloped Baroque.
Interestingly, the Sanctus starts mysteriously rather than boldly, an effect that the choir achieved splendidly; by now, a legato element had crept in, while the Agnus Dei had a delightful plangency, thanks not least to the altos, after a Benedictus enhanced by a lively lead for the sopranos.
It was good to see a concert that was as courageous as this attract a respectable-size audience. Biber emerged with honours, mostly; and a choir willing to take such risks patently deserves admiration and applause.