VIAF 2014

A most polished performance by Clare College Choir, Cambridge

With such a pedigree, counting composer John Rutter among its past students, Clare College Choir, Cambridge, showed what a most refined and polished ensemble they are in a programme of works that ranged from the Renaissance master Palestrina to contemporary John Rutter.

Easily performing a cappella works as well as others to organ accompaniment such as Panis Angelicus by Franck and Mozart’s much-loved Ave Verum, this performance was characterized by scrupulous attention to details of intonation and phrasing, as well as adopting to the diverse stylistic requirements of the various pieces.

Palestrina’s late, mature work Assumpta est Maria was sung interspersed by other works. The concert started with this master’s motet of the same name, the choir set its mark immediately. The very opening imitative motive yielded an excellent example of word-painting: it begins with an upward leap, the melody continued upwards (contrary to Palestrina’s usual practice of melodic compensation), and it concluded with an extended melisma upwards through an entire octave on the words ‘into heaven.’ The work returned to exultant rising melismas on the verb ‘praise’, and intensified this second imitation by syncopation and very close intervals between the voices. Further evidence of close text-painting appears in the trumpet-like repeated pitches in the top voice as the text described the angels, a sudden harmonic shift as they “bless the Lord,” and the almost dance-like skipping quality of the concluding “Alleluia.” Remarkably, all this was accomplished in the midst of characteristically pristine counterpoint. 

The Mass is scored for SSATTB. The performance achieved a remarkable lightness and delicacy of texture within the richness of an elaborate six-part counterpoint. The melodic lines, making extensive use of the upper registers of each voice, produced a brilliant tone, while their constant crossing and re-crossing imbued the work with an ethereal feel. This was most striking in the Kyrie and Agnus Dei, where the composer constantly varies the vocal groupings, contrasting different densities and registers. The Christe is particularly impressive; in an unusual move, Palestrina reduces the texture to the four lowest voices (ATTB) creating a hushed, mellow tone of dignified beauty, an appealing shadow within a light and brilliant movement. The four soloists acquitted themselves admirably, with a sensitive balance maintained throughout.

The Gloria and Credo‘s writing is primarily homophonic, indeed quasi-harmonic, where rhythmic elaboration consists of short melodic fragments or syncopated inner parts. Here, director Graham Ross particularly exploited the upper timbres for the scoring of many passages is for upper-voice quartets (SSAT or SSAA). In the Sanctus, Palestrina deploys an astonishing diversity of contrapuntal means to achieve a joyful, varied movement. The texture constantly shifted as the voices are grouped in ever-changing blocks, and flowing contrapuntal phrases alternated rapidly with restrained homophonic passages. Comprehensively, this is a magnificent setting of the Mass, rivalled only by his Missa Papae Marcelli.

Bach’s Singet dem Herrn (Cantata no. 190) BWV225 is a most difficult motet. It is cast in three distinct sections, fast, slow, and fast. It opens with an eight-part chorus, which after a homophonic introduction proceeds to a section in which one four-part choir is used to accompany a fugal development by the other, an extraordinary and at the time unique device. The central slower section is also layered and divided into two four-part choruses, with the anonymous poetic text freely juxtaposed with the stricter lines of the chorale melody. The final section initially returns to the animated homophony of the opening, but subsequently evolves into a four-part fugue with the two choirs combined. The interpretation given by Clare College Choir was an impressive one indeed, fully articulated and clear.

Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus was accompanied most sensitively by one of the two organists at hand and the dynamic quality of his motet was kept an a low level, lending a mystical aura to the piece. This was followed by the Credo from Frank Martin’s Messe for a cappella double choir. Scored in a contemporary idiom, this was a most exciting performance which equally showed the versatility of this excellent choir. Franck’s Panis angelicus was given a most creditable performance by the soloist and when the choir joined in the second and final recapitulation of the piece it kept a discrete balance without in any way overpowering the main voice. Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring is also a well-known work, built on a homophonic four-part chorus over rippling triplets on the organ. For his alma mater, Clare College, John Rutter composed A Clare Benediction. Composed to organ accompaniment, this was a most ethereal piece that flowed seamlessly and effortlessly. A truly lovely work!

Parsons’ Ave Maria concluded the concert. The opening acclamation to Mary transpires in three phrases, as the melody line gracefully steps up only six notes of the scale; the other four support the uppermost voice as if on contrapuntal angels’ wings. The phrase calling her “blessed among women” arrives with close and intense syllabic declamation in all voices. The final text, “and blessed be the fruit of thy womb,” Parsons sets to two iterations of a learned and reverent Point of Imitation (much as Tallis often repeats a climactic phrase), exploiting the rich harmonic cross-relations between E flat to E natural. A lengthy “Amen” in continuous imitation between all voices follows.

This was a truly magnificent performance by one of the best-known choirs!