Devotion – MacMillan Mass, Howells Requiem, Bach Motets
St John’s, Smith Square, London, 26th June 2007
The theme of this concert was Devotion – the power of music to touch the heart. A favourite text for a number settings was Absolon my son. After classic accounts from Weelkes and Tomkins, contemporary versions by Eric Whitacre and Jonathan Rathbone dealt with the same incidents. The former featured a tenor solo and exploited tonal contrasts and variations with great effect. In all these items the choir maintained a high standard of intonation and a virtuoso command of expression. Two compositions by J S Bach use another biblical text Der geist unser Schwachheit uaf and Psalm 117 Lobet den Herrn. In spite of the solemnity of the words both were set to lilting melodies; the first in fact sounds inappropriate for a funeral and may reflect Bach’s dislike for the deceased.
Herbert Howells wrote his Requiem after the death of his only son in 1935 – the sense of personal anguish resulted in six movements containing music of a very private nature. In fact, Howells withheld publication until 1980, feeling that it was too personal a composition to be released. Some indication of his intentions were summarised by him when he wrote “For text I sought immemorial prose .. two lines from the Latin Requiem Mass .. et lux perpetua luceat eis would govern the work.” The English texts are taken from the Psalms and Book of Common Prayer, emphasising the power of music to comfort and console, including the familiar verses of The Lord is my shepherd.
The concert ended with a performance of James MacMillan’s Mass , commissioned by Westminster Cathedral for the Millennium celebrations. The inherent drama of the liturgy is evident in the five parts which are accompanied by MacMillan’s characteristically atmospheric writing for organ. His own religious faith illuminates every moment of this mass which, as ever, provides a very individual response to the ancient Latin texts. The singers were tested by his long, lyrical lines, but the Vasari group under Jeremy Backhouse emerged triumphant.
Obviously St John’s does not possess the austere grandeur of the Cathedral with its lofty ceilings and sonorous organ. Also missing was the unmistakeable urgent sound of the boys’ choir at Westminster , something unique amongst English cathedrals. Even so, the performance obviously pleased the composer and the audience.
Choir shows devotion to choral music
Under their director, Jeremy Backhouse, the excellent Vasari Singers have built something of a reputation for programming that looks to draw together familiar repertoire from all eras and linking them directly, either through text or context, to a contemporary counterpart.
This concert, as explained in the comprehensive programme notes, was linked through the concept of Devotion, and as we have come to expect from this group, led the audience on a fascinating journey. Starting from the master of counterpoint by opening each half with a motet from J S Bach, through to the master of modern spirituality, James MacMillan, closing the night with his 2000 Mass.
The central core of the programming revolved around the powerful words from the second book of Samuel, “When David heard that Absalom was slain”. In 2004 at St John’s, Vasari linked two settings very effectively of these words by Tomkins and Rathbone, and tonight these were joined by two further settings by Weelkes (a contemporary of Tomkins) and the young US composer Eric Whitacre.
This setting by Whitacre was of particular note, as 15 minutes of drama, intensity and atmosphere swept over the audience in stunning fashion. The work that followed, the very personal Requiem, by Herbert Howells (a piece dedicated to the memory of Howells’ young son who died at a tragically young age) for which this group is highly regarded for performing, possibly suffered as a result of being placed immediately after the theatrical Whitacre, but nonetheless it was performed with equal poise. MacMillan’s dramatic, and ultimately haunting Mass brought Jeremy Filsell to the organ and rounded off the night in reflective fashion.
With such a range of music, all of it with a profound message and the majority of it a cappella, this programme would have stretched even the finest choirs, but Vasari responded with poise and intensity throughout. Given the nature of the programming, “uplifting” is the wrong word to summarise this performance, but the choir once again affirmed their ability to communicate every nuance of such beautiful music directly to every member of the audience.