Andrew Shenton’s leadership of the Boston Choral Ensemble since 2011 has consistently focused on the English choral tradition in one form or another. Saturday’s concert in Marsh Chapel, the inaugural of BCE’s season, was a thoughtful exposition on the incorporation of chant in choral music. The standing theme of English choral composers appeared obliquely in this context: Tallis and Tavener occupied major roles early in the evening, selections of whose works were archetypes of the technique. These preludes culminated in a performance of Duruflé’s Requiem, which takes the rhythms and melodies of chant as its central idiom.
I found the early a cappella selections of Saturday evening particularly adventurous. Tallis’s Audivi vocem de caelo exposes individual parts. Lugubrious unison chant lines are interspersed with florid characteristic polyphony. The emphasis placed on any single line proves treacherous to perform, albeit exquisite to hear. Likewise, Tavener’s Funeral Ikos (1981) and O, Do Not Move (1990), incorporate chantlike melodies from the Orthodox tradition. Conceptually, his adroit 20th-century minimalism is not as complex as Tallis’s English Renaissance approach, and much can be said about what is lost or gained in Tavener’s characteristic style. But more than being a spectacle, these motets are engaging meditative experiences.
The Duruflé Requiem stands in stark contrast to both of these works. The Mass makes use of the full chorus, with accompaniment (organ, here), throughout the piece. Here and there are intimations of late Romanticism, not to mention lyrical forays that tend toward dramatic pastiche. Regardless, the technical focus of Duruflé’s composition is clear: a dogged emphasis on chant rhythms and their modalities that takes primacy throughout. I was surprised to learn of the pernicious underpinnings of these concepts: BCE’s copious program note highlighted the Nazi origins of this Mass and its commission from the Vichy that emphasized France’s pro-Catholic roots and rejection of modernism.
BCE presented these works on Saturday in a program entitled Dark, Dark Night. Audivi vocem de caelo, first in the concert, was vivid and well-shaped, distinctively English counterpoint making the somber sensibilities of the text subtly playful. A short motet by Gesualdo followed (Peccantem me quotidiem, led by assistant conductor Kira Winters). The performance was not as nuanced as the preceding Tallis, often betraying insecurities in pitches (of course, in Gesualdo can anyone be certain?).
Before the second half, choir member Jonathan Swift reflected on the concert themes, emphasizing that the performance coincided with All Saints’ and All Souls’, days on which the dead in the Christian tradition are remembered. For the secular in the audience, it was an opportunity to feel the contraction of summer days and to pay tribute to the recently deceased Tom Menino. Members were invited to light candles in memory and place them at the steps to the altar. The milling about of the audience in the nave distracted from the Tavener performance, but I was struck by how effectively this allowed the audience to play a more expansive role, placing the work in its liturgical context and providing a meditative space in which both music and action co-exist. The austere sound world of Tavener fit the darkening mood of the concert, which proceeded attacca, to Duruflé.
In collaboration with Bálint Karosi on Marsh Chapel’s Casavant, BCE gave a thoroughly attentive read. The dramatic Offertorium or Libera Me are perennial favorites, and Saturday’s performance did not disappoint. Much more impressively, however, I was struck by how delicate both chorus and organ sounded in the subdued movements, particularly the Pie Jesu, requiring unflagging attention to detail and crisp intonation. A well-trained sound from the higher sections here, devoid of excessive vibrato or bravura, was stunningly placid. Likewise sections of Domine Jesu Christe, which incorporates extended chantlike sections for both upper and lower voices, were impressive in their fluent and natural shaping. Marsh Chapel was a good choice for this performance, the sound satisfyingly amplified.
After a standing ovation, the concert closed with Duruflé’s Notre Père. The choir showed some exhaustion here: French diction was messy, and this touching miniature lost much of the finesse and class that characterized the remainder of the concert. But this concluding work was a touching reminder of the main dedicatee of the Requiem, the composer’s father.