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Music review: ‘Joy and Devotion’ festival (St Martin-in-the-Fields)

08 December 2023

Fiona Hook listens to modern choral works at St Martin-in-the Fields

St Martin-in-the-Fields, London

St Martin-in-the-Fields, London

TWO concerts in St Martin-in-the Fields, in London, of unaccompanied 20th-century choral music formed part of the third annual “Joy and Devotion” festival of Polish sacred music, sponsored by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute. Lively and polished performances provided powerful advocacy for works that are not always immediately accessible, but demonstrate that Poland’s tradition of choral composition is alive and flourishing.

The Cotswold-based Carice Singers, directed by George Parris, presented “Maryja”, a programme of serene music centred on the Virgin Mary. They started with Sir Andrzej Panufnik’s Song to the Virgin Mary, evoking a simple peasant faith. The pentatonic melody had a strong folk flavour, opening with a repeated three-note motif from the sopranos, answered by an alto voice in the gallery, the other voices gradually joining in to a fortissimo climax. The middle section was pianissimo and rhythmic, the singers intoning rather than singing, like a congregation in a country church. The third section is a prayer of increasing urgency, in which sopranos repeat “Maria” at the top of their range, culminating in a final full-throated shout.

The first part of Roman Padlewski’s Stabat Mater was dramatic and contemplative, the sopranos intoning the hymn over a sustained note from the tenors. The second was livelier. The third, “Virgo virginum praeclara”, prays for heavenly joy, the choir dividing into as many as seven parts, utilising intricate counterpoint or medieval identical note values for all voices.

The choir’s Polish in Henryk Mikolaj Górecki’s Marian songs was most impressive, reminding us what a gift the language with its soft consonants and open vowels is to the choral singer. The programme ended with Aldona Narocka’s Ave Maria, with its interesting texture of hummed rising semitones and fading whispers, and Krzysztof Penderecki’s O Gloriosa Virginum.

The members of the Epiphoni Consort, founded in 2014 by its director, Tim Reader, sing to a professional standard, but have other full-time jobs. Their “Passion and Resurrection” programme of music based on liturgical texts showed that they obviously have time to rehearse thoroughly and intelligently.

Marek Jasinski’s invigorating English setting of Psalm 150, heavily reliant on rhythmic texture, passed from triple to quintuple time and danced for “Praise him with harps and lyres”. Its modal section with a falsetto cantor, reminiscent of the synagogue, was most effective. Andrzej Koszewski’s Angelus Domini suggested the different emotions of those praying as the words were sung, spoken, or whispered, clearly enunciated, while other voices sounded the Angelus bell. Penderecki was represented by his Agnus Dei.

Two pieces by the Festival’s president, Paweł Łukaszewski, showed why he deserves his international reputation. The Ave Maria for double choir, with its more conventional harmonies, gave the choir a chance to demonstrate their dynamic control, particularly in the passage leading up to the lovely minor plagal cadence at the end. Crucem Tuam Adoremus, Domine began with a plainchant and the hypnotic repetition of “crucem tuam” was broken by a violent ‘crucifixus est’. The choir tossed the syllables of “crucifixus” between them, violent death dissolving into a whispered “virtute”. Death was swallowed up in victory.

The generation born during the 1990s was represented by Dominik Puk’s Vidi Aquam, Michał Malec’s Salve Regina, and Tomasz Soczek’s Prelude and Fugue for organ, played by Rupert Jeffcoat.

None of this music is easy to sing, with its complex chords, tricky rhythms, and sometimes unusual technical demands. Both groups blended and balanced beautifully, alert to the conductor and to each other with beauty of tone, accurate intonation, and depth of feeling. If the Epiphoni Consort did not have quite the burnished perfection of their full-time professional counterparts, they weren’t far off.

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