Looking back over the year passed, we are at a loss to explain or forestall far too much senseless bloodshed. Those of us who love music often cleave to it, consciously or not, both as a spiritual means of rising above such violence and finding consolation in its aftermath. Such was the theme of the Cantata Singers’ concert under David Hoose on January 18th at First Church Congregational in Cambridge, “Divining the Incandescent.”
The entirely a cappella program’s leitmotiv was a single musical device: the Phrygian mode. Harkening back to ancient Greece, this mode is simply a scale from E to E played on white keys only. When harmony is applied, the result is considerable complexity and instability. Yet the diverse composers on this program found this useful in depicting suffering and unconventional ways of resolving it (in both the musical and spiritual sense).
Anton Bruckner’s Pange lingua (Sing, my tongue, the mystery of the glorious body) indeed set a tone of mystery warming into praise. This rendering had amplitude and warm intimacy, celebration and poignancy. The finely judged balance of every chord and the discipline of the ever-changing dynamics consistently impressed. The performance abridged the motet to verses 1, 5 and 6, but I daresay it left many yearning to hear the omitted verses as well. Hoose took Bruckner’s Christus factus est (Christ was made obedient for us unto death, even unto the death of the cross) at a wonderfully slow tempo—wonderful because the singers’ expressivity never flagged, their inner fire at one moment banked, at another, blazing out. The ascension to the great climax was Herculean. Also, just short of the summit, the score’s full bar of silence left one in almost unbearable suspense until the climax burst forth. Following a long descent and tapering-off after so much D minor angst, the final, gentle resolution to D major left me emotionally wrung out but comforted. Surely, this was precisely the effect for which Bruckner was aiming.
The Requiem of British composer Herbert Howells (1892-1983) was a deeply personal document that the composer declined to release for publication for over four decades. Written in 1936 in the aftermath of the death of his only son, Michael, from spinal meningitis at age 9, the work was Howells’s means of attaining some “release and consolation [from] a loss essentially profound and, in its very nature, beyond argument.” As contrasted with, say, Verdi’s Requiem, this work’s six movements go to few extremes of range or dynamics. They achieve their considerable emotional traction instead by using dissonance and harmonic instability (Phrygian or otherwise) to depict grief and pain, giving way to the balm of resolution into sweet, diatonic harmonies. Additionally, the prevailing mood of restraint gives extra impact to the infrequent climaxes. There is also the subtle contrast of integrated eight-part writing with that of two separate choirs, often within the same movement.
The dynamic subtleties of Hoose’s singers again contributed mightily to the success of their reading of this work. The Howells Requiem uses both Latin and English texts, but the musicians consistently showed their involvement with the words in either tongue. The opening Salvator mundi (O Savior of the World) was a world-weary plea for salvation, enhanced by the heaviness of the Phrygian lowered second scale degree. An array of soloists from within the ensemble admirably set the differing tones for movements 2, 4, and 6, singing unaffectedly with attractive tone and minimal vibrato (one soprano excepted). The third and fifth movements both set the Requiem aeternam (Eternal rest grant them) text, and both times Howells particularly singles out et lux perpetua luceat eis (and may light perpetual shine on them) for differing special treatments. The first occurrence uses the two-choir format with overlapping chords creating momentary flashes of bitonality at a ppp dynamic. Hoose’s careful attention to balancing the two choirs resulted in the effect of something not of this world, truly a light from beyond. A second instance comes in the middle of a gradual build-up à la Bruckner: the same text enters in the minor mode and is repeated before emerging brilliantly major at the biggest climax of the entire work. Again, the musicians’ carefully paced dynamics through the build-up made for a powerfully cathartic climax. The final movement, I Heard a Voice from Heaven, shares some of the text of the last movement of Johannes Brahms’s German Requiem, as well as its luminosity. The Cantata Singers gave it a warmth and beauty of sound that were a panacea, one hopes, to all who heard them.
The Mass for Double Choir (1922/1926) of Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974), like the Howells Requiem, was also kept from publication for over forty years. Though Martin enjoyed a long creative life of over half a century, “it was only towards the age of forty-five that I discovered my true [musical] language.” Nevertheless, his Mass for Double Choir (1922/1926) already incorporates a number of traits that characterize this composer: strong rhythmic profile, colorful but clear harmonies, elegant musical lines, and the neo-Baroque rigor reflecting his chosen model, J. S. Bach, as well as the simple beauty of unadorned plainsong. Far less restrained than the Howells, the Mass has a wider range of tempi and dynamics, and as before, Hoose and the Cantata Singers displayed exemplary command of nuance and rhythmic flexibility. The opening movement, Kyrie, to cite one example, had ethereal beauty in its slow, plainsong-like outer section and an exciting, crisply rhythmic faster middle section. The Sanctus, also beginning dreamily with rich harmonies, gradually heated up, leading to a vigorous pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua (heaven and earth are full of your glory) capped by a thrilling Hosanna in excelsis. The final Agnus Dei enchanted with its rich harmonies, beginning in supplicant fashion, becoming incrementally more urgent as it progressed, but concluding with a healing serenity.
As richly rewarding as this performance was, it could have been even more so if the performers had adjusted in a few ways to the venue. First Church is quite reverberant, more so than Jordan Hall, where the Cantata Singers more often perform. Enunciation must be sharper for words to be understood without one’s continually consulting the program. And most of all, vibrato needs to be curtailed in such a live room. The emotional power of all three composers, particularly Howells and Martin, is rooted in their highly expressive harmonic language; this power is diminished if these harmonies are made opaque by vibrato, as happened somewhat regularly. Nonetheless, this was a deeply moving, even soul-healing, performance of some rarely heard works, and the audience rightly showed their great appreciation at length.