19th May 2012 St Pancras Church, Euston Road
Exultate Singers, David Ogden (conductor), Richard May (cello) and Richard Johnson (organ)
On the penultimate evening of the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, the Bristol-based Exultate Singers and conductor David Ogden delivered a polished performance of works by John Tavener, Roxanna Panufnik, Knut Nystedt and Francis Grier. The concert consisted of a thoughtful, complementary programme of challenging, haunting but often rich and luxuriant music with frequently pervading exotic Eastern tonalities, much of it the kind of contemporary music to convert the staunchest of early music devotees.
The performance opened with Svyati, John Tavener’s compelling interpretation of the Church Slavonic text used at most Russian funerals: ‘Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal, have mercy on us’. The low bass pedal drone underpinned the unearthly solo cello which seemed to engulf the audience from all around (the cello was positioned behind the audience), idling fretfully back and forth within Eastern modes and interplaying wonderfully with the rest of the choir’s rich, homophonic passages.
Roxanna Panufnik explained in her insightful pre-concert talk that, when approached to write a setting of the Anglican Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, she chose to combine the Magnificat words (Mary’s wonder at being the chosen mother of Christ and dedication of herself to God) with the not-unrelated words of the Catholic Ave Maria (‘Hail Mary full of grace’, Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary as repeated daily by Catholics in prayer). So it was that the lower voice parts opened Panufnik’s Magnificat with bell-like A-ve Ma-ri-as syllabically spread across the voices (reminiscent of Arvo Pärt) while the sopranos made their Anglican annunciation over this choral accompaniment. Panufnik’s Nunc Dimittis also combined both the Latin and Anglican text (‘Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’), seemingly bridging traditions ancient and modern. The choir were most assured and expressive throughout. Only at the very end did they seem slightly unable to produce the full force of volume that the piece required.
Not so in Nystedt’s challenging Stabat Mater, which depicted Mary’s pain standing at the foot of the cross as her son is crucified. Nystedt and the Exultate Singers took us through a series of emotions: violent rage, deep empathy with Mary, despondence, the sense of a mother’s loss and finally our own joyous hope of paradise. The searing, jagged cello opening later at times gave way to long, full, mellifluous passages alternating with choral sections which similarly conveyed this emotional range through quietly eerie chromaticism, simple, beautiful melodic writing, angry, dissonant, forte staccato crotchets and homophonic yearning. On occasion, the singers did not seem quite as comfortable with this work in pitching terms, particularly some of the exposed soprano leads but for the most part they displayed a uniform richness of tone and excellent diction, performing with great aplomb. Here and elsewhere in the concert, Richard May (cello) was a particular highlight. His was a quietly star performance: he tackled virtuosic, highly chromatic passages with ease and vigour, he approached intense sections with great attack, soft, high harmonics with sensitivity and he played with deep feeling and beautiful warmth of tone throughout.
For me, the evening’s stand-out performance by the choir was of Francis Grier’s Sword in the Soul, a seven-movement work using texts from the eponymous drama by Rowan Williams, a dramatic meditation written for a Good Friday broadcast. Up to this juncture, the choir had performed beautifully and sensitively but in this work, they discovered in themselves an earthy grit, a performance of true intensity conveying the sense of the drama. For lovers of Grier, this was a piece of great interest, a soundworld very removed from much of his well-known choral work. Its movements were hugely varied (helpful programme notes told us more about the source of the original texts) including a rhapsodic elegy – a ‘dialogue’ for solo cello and organ (Richard Johnson) – followed by an a cappella movement musing on the paradox of the cross as an instrument of torture and a metaphor for redemption. Excellent step-out soloists brought a new dimension to the concert demonstrating further still the ensemble’s great versatility.
The final work of the evening was Panufnik’s two-choir All Shall Be Well, commissioned by the Exultate Singers to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event which had deep resonances for Panufnik whose father had defected from Poland in the 1950s, only able to return in 1990, a year before his death. Again, Panufnik married two texts, a Polish hymn, Bogurodzica, sung by medieval knights praying that Mary keep them safe in battle, and part of Julian of Norwich’s Divine Revelations including the reassuring words ‘All things shall be well’. Thus Panufnik created a moving and hopeful dialogue between the two, a prayer and its answer, each represented by one choir over solo cello. Once again the Exultate Singers acquitted themselves beautifully through concurrent major-minor and quasi-jazz progressions, and wave-like, rocking interplay building up towards a resolving climax of ‘paradise’ and ‘great joy’, sentiments very much echoed by the audience at the end of this wonderful evening of thought-provoking compositions, and all-round heartfelt and accomplished performances.
(Originally written for Musical Opinion)