Radical Masses

St Martin-in-the-Fields, 26th September 2006


The Vasari Singers captured the full measure of this combination, held in complete control by conductor Jeremy Backhouse. The Credo was the high point, capturing every nuance and detail with total accuracy and then letting go in a joyous surge of polyphony in the concluding Amen.

In Will Todd’s Mass… …there was also a real feeling of tension and excitement – this was a work that the players and singers wanted to perform – and their enthusiasm spread to the audience where a good many of us were just itching to get up on the platform and join in.

An evening to remember, in the gentle candlelit ambience of St Martin ‘s, with its fine acoustics for voices.

Click here to read full review.

Serena Fenwick


The choir performed admirably… their communication and ensemble delivery gave the performances an air of biting confidence. The highlight of the concert was the Mass in Blue, and the enthusiastic audience response confirmed that this piece will enjoy much success in the concert hall and on CD. Make sure to catch it.

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Dave Paxton, 27th September 2006


How do you like Masses?

The Vasari Singers, under their choral director Jeremy Backhouse, is one of the best choirs to emerge in the last few years from the UK, which, as a country, sings so well. The specialist critics of this repertoire (of which I’m not one) praise this group of voices who compete with another choir of spectacular quality, with a much longer illustrious history: The BBC Singers.

I don’t often listen to this type of repertoire but sometimes I see Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli listed and I always try to listen to it: it’s like going to a fountain, drinking the water and then purifying yourself of Wagner and other immense works, and of so much pretension.

Palestrina is just that, a purifier of styles and an innovator of creativity and implacable musical etiquette. This isn’t the place to speculate whether or not the mass was composed for the Council of Trent (Pfitzner’s opera deals with this in a genius and moving manner, but that is another story). What it is and what it means in musical terms cannot be discussed, but the piece allows the listener to devoutly enjoy the polyphonic sounds, and at the same time listen to the text, conforming to the traditionalists and the renovators of the genre. A triumph of genius and cunning.

The Vasari Singers consists of 33 singers: Eleven sopranos, eight altos, six tenors and eight basses, in other words, it falls in the middle of current choral trends, it isn’t as reduced as ‘Harry Christopher’s 16′ but isn’t as large as other groups either. The technique of this choir allows them to be individuals; the voices are homogenous but recognizable, that is to say that there aren’t the large vibrato levels which are so fashionable in today’s singing which end up leaving the wrong impression of how to produce harmonious sound. With the Vasari Singers it’s always possible to hear distinct voices and yet they sing as one. What a surprise!

The programme commenced with Lotti’s 8-part Crucifuxus: a piece of great dynamic variation which sounds as modern today as it maybe did the day it was composed in the XVIII century. A surprise was the next piece by Gesualdo, which belonged to the previous century, presenting harmonies much more advanced and developed, allowing the voices to be distinguished in each of its sections.

The main course followed these aperitifs, and with Palestrina (the same as with Spinoza) there are no concessions, this masterpiece of all time was presented with authority, polyphonic transparency and with affection and respect to an unparalleled piece. The harmonic resolutions are surprising even today, and amaze the listener as well as leaving them in a state of gratefulness. And when they reached Qui tollis the lines were firm and clear. The polyphony doesn’t obstruct because Palestrina presents the texts with short notes and in in a simple way. Further ahead in the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei (composed in the form of a triple canon), he affords the luxury of introducing more polyphony where the words have less importance.

But extraordinary things happen due to their unexpectedness. Throughout the piece there is a variation in the melody L’Homme arme, a well-known folk piece of the time. The notes So, Do, Te, La, So are heard in the bass at the beginning of Kyrie, and if you play Te flat in place of Te, you get the aforementioned French song. It’s worth remembering that the Council of Trent had prohibited the use of such folk melodies, and that its use by Palestrina, if not taken as a challenge, should be taken like a heavy joke.

This is a piece to be listened to more than described and prepares the atmosphere for what would follow, in that as modern as it was (and it was) it had that spiritual relationship that all masses should have. Nevertheless, I should raise a question that an English critic friend of mine, a specialist in his field, asked: why didn’t they divide the choir into two sections and place them apart to produce an antiphonal sound? It was a question nobody was able to answer with clarity after the concert.

During the interval that followed, I found myself looking (as always) at the magnificent terrace of the church which looks out onto a landscape that hasn’t changed in centuries. To the right we could see the British Gallery, in front the Admiralty Arch, to the left Whitehall, the centre of British power and in the middle of it all, Trafalgar Square, which is as international as London itself and that today has nothing to do with the famous maritime battle. With the statue of Nelson standing on a pedestal, where thousands of pigeons leave their deposits, maybe by way of a commentary to the diplomatic and colonial history of this reign.

And finally I return to the 21st Century and a piece very much of the 20th century, Mass in Blue by Will Todd. Who? I hear the restless spectator ask.

Will Todd is a young English composer born in the north east of England, whose opera The Blackened Man, received the second prize in 2002 in the International Contest of Giuseppe Verdi Opera. I saw this piece when it was presented by the royal opera in the Linbury Theatre in 2004 and is a well-constructed work, a true opera.

But Todd is not one of those so-called composers of the vanguard that originates from the school of Darmstadt. None of that: Todd looks for his roots much closer to his place of birth and it is the choral pieces, his operas for children and his musicals that reveal a restless youth, that not only produces music of high quality but that reaches the listener immediately. Today Todd’s music is very popular in the US where it is played regularly and where in September he premiered his new oratorio, The screams of Kitty Genovese.

And this is logical because the piece seems to have been composed for American choruses and in original American rhythm and blues. Todd makes use of the fundamental sequence of twelve bar blues which characterize jazz, as well as create complex harmonic structures and the Mass is a piece which causes an instant impact in the spectator for its beauty and energy.

Todd has the gift of the optimistic melody, full of light, the harmonic play seems simple with a play of thirds, dominant and return to the tonic, but if this is a basic accompaniment, the best part is the choir, the main protagonist.

The introduction is spectacular and demonstrates that Todd is an excellent jazz pianist with a group of drums and bass. You could say that the Church of St Martin’s seemed small for the acoustic required, and the sound tended to become obscured, despite the extraordinary clarity of the choir. The Soprano sang with the help of a microphone which helped create an artificial effect.

The Gloria contains a central section in 5/8 which gradually reaches a recap of the material at the start, with very catchy music showing the choir’s colours with great mastery and confidence, while the Credo gives the soprano a 12/8 rhythm in the context of the 12 bar blues. There is an element of the evangelic when the choir begin to repeat passages and sing with closed mouthed hum.

There are moments in which the music, itself always enjoyable, becomes contagious, although at times the enthusiasm of the blues made doubtful things happen, for example I’m not sure that it’s right to listen to ‘Et incarnatus est’ in rhythm and blues, but the ‘Cruxifixus’ is treated with more respect.

Reaching ‘Et resurrexit’ the tempo gains an astonishing speed until at the end it returns to the 12/8 rhythm, culminating in a moment full of excitement. If one thinks about the American congregations and their collective enthusiasm, there is no doubting why Todd is so popular in the States. You could even say that this is a musical comedy based on Mass.

The Benedictus opens with a pizzicato bass line and on this rhythmic base the choir creates an ambient plainchant, to which the rest of the sections join one by one, reaching the ‘Hosanna’, which possesses an uncontrollable rhythm. The Agnus Dei is an extremely delicate blues for the soprano, extensive and almost of improvised, and who later, spontaneously joins in with the choir.

This isn’t a normal Mass, and for this reason the Credo returns in spectacular form which will lift the public from whichever church or hall it is performed and in the end, when it seems they cannot endure more, the Et expecto resurrectionem arrives, the music returns to the opening theme, and the final harmonies leave us with no doubt that after listening to this mass, we won’t be the same people that entered this beautiful church.

It’s fitting to record that the programme notes tell us that this mass was composed in 2003 commissioned by the Hertfordshire Chorus, and that it was originally conceived for orchestra. Having not listened to the original, but having heard this version with jazz trio, I don’t think it could be bettered with the addition of more symphonic sound, although those that wish to explore a little more could satisfy their curiosity by buying this mass on CD on Signum Classics SIGCD 083, where the piece was recorded by this choir with a jazz group of nine musicians.

If a Spanish choral group wished to create a religious mood but also modern and respectful of the mass, I don’t know of a better piece with which to do so. In fact, you could even say that Todd has created a very sexy mass!

Eduardo Benarroch, 17th October 2006, originally written in Spanish.

Translated to English by Jane Elgar.

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