Under the leadership of John Ehrlich on Saturday evening at First Church Cambridge, Spectrum Singers provided a select, celebratory bouquet of Britten’s choral works highlighting the centenary composer’s particular talent in settings of texts for the choir. This focus led Ehrlich to program as many inevitable works as rarefied ones, such as the 1944 Festival Te Deum (Op. 32), which faithfully follows the English cadences of the Augustine text, pitting the organ against the chorus in two completely different meters that change practically measure by measure (many kudos go to Saturday’s organist Justin Blackwell, for negotiating this with remarkable ease). But comparing this to the Ballad of the Green Broom (taken from the Op. 47 Five Flower Songs) of course, is the obvious comic consequence of this careful attention, we got a caricature of how ballads put primacy on melody over text. Britten’s breathless account of how Johnny falls in love with and marries the nameless Lady of the text is a lively, if but limping screed crammed into the crevices of a cantankerous melody. But certainly, there are other pieces that approach this melding of text and music with a subtler hand—perhaps the best that can be said about these masterful settings is that a listener is oblivious to the natural cadences that inform the music.
Spectrum’s approach on Saturday was meticulous but emotive, opening the concert with the spirited 1946 Wedding Anthem (Op. 46). Spectrum presented a sensitive, yet sonically brilliant execution of a difficult work that can sometimes come off as stilted or awkward. Thomas Best and Tricia Kennedy (tenor and soprano soloists, respectively) were in particularly fine form in the labyrinthine solo and duet passages in the anthem.
The concert took a surprisingly stern shift from the fanfare of the Wedding Anthem to the intensely internalized A Boy Was Born (Op. 3). This is a challenging listen—Saturday’s performance featured two selections from the set of five, all of which take intense religious themes as their subject. The music is experimental, yet oddly emotive—an intense experience for audience, as well as (one can imagine) chorus. Complete commitment to Ehrlich’s vision provided a solid, meaningful read of this difficult music.
Surprisingly, A Boy Was Born found its greatest resonance with the opening opera chorus from Peter Grimes, performed later in the concert. Sonically, these are polar-opposite worlds. The former is spare soundscape, with a well-developed, sophisticated tonal palate. Song of the Fishermen, from Peter Grimes, in turn, is almost completely unison or in thirds, completely written in A major. Saturday’s performance bathed this chorus in an intensely personal light that placed the small community where the drama takes places as the intensely claustrophobic place the opera shows it to be.
Spectrum also gave vibrant performances of the Op. 32 Festival Te Deum and Op. 56b Antiphon that highlighted Britten’s glibber side. Almost as a palate cleanser for the first half the Ballad of the Green Broom appropriately sent a ripple of giggles through the audience.
Turning from Britten, Saturday evening’s concert remained in England, ending with a performance of famous choral conductor and arranger John Rutter’s 1985 Requiem (in memory of his father). Set for choir, soloist, and small ensemble, it is written in seven movements, two of which are psalm settings, the remainder, settings of texts from the Catholic Missa pro defunctis. Although one first hear little more than Rutter’s debt to the Faure Requiem, I suspect the music benefits from a second hearing. Much of it is quite effective, but sometimes breaks into passages that come off as platitudinous, perhaps even saccharine. Ehrlich, in his program notes warns of his own “initial misgivings” of the Requiem, noting that on his early hearings of the piece, it came off as “pretty, cannily crafted, yet somehow a bit superficial and glossy”. But in remarks to the audience before the performance, Ehrlich reminded us that the music takes on a completely new meaning in light of remembering a recently passed loved one.
Misgivings aside, Spectrum provided an unimpeachable performance. The ensemble showed a remarkable ease with the thorny harmonic passages and provided a full, satisfying sound in the recurring unison themes. Saturday’s performance featured soprano Laura Harbert in the third and final movements. Harbert has been a featured soloist with the Spectrum Singers in the past, and it’s easy to see why: her muted and serene lower register blended beautifully with a radiant top—a perfect match for the melodic lines that characterize work. Cellist Sam Ou was also featured prominently throughout the piece and received special recognition during the bows for good reason: Ou’s take on Rutter’s score imbued the work with an uncanny sense of gravitas, particularly in second movement, which opens with a particularly demanding cello solo. Ou negotiated that passage and others punctuated throughout the work with remarkable ease and clarity, while maintaining a graceful—if vociferous—line that fit well into the narrative.
The satisfying collaboration between choir and orchestra proved remarkably moving in the Requiem. This was an altogether rewarding evening.