IN: Reviews

Striking Gold in the Choral Periphery


Frank Martin

As is their wont, John Ehrlich’s Spectrum Singers introduced Sunday’s First Church Congregational, Cambridge audience, to largely unfamiliar choral works: the original organ-accompanied version of Dvořák’s Mass in D Major, Op. 86, and the a cappella Mass for Double Choir by Swiss composer Frank Martin. Ehrlich dedicated the concert to the memory of the late John Oliver, founder and conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus for some four decades. While singing under Oliver, Ehrlich first encountered and performed the Martin Mass.

The Dvořák is better known in its later, more elaborate orchestral incarnation, but as a companion piece to the a cappella Martin setting, this more intimate version made an apt choice. Heinrich Christensen accompanied on the mainly Baroque-style Frobenius organ, deftly adapting it to the Bohemian composer’s Romantic sound-world. Like Vaughan Williams in England and Copland in America, Dvořák frequently drew inspiration from his country’s folk tunes; from the Mass’s opening pages this became notable. The Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy) mainly beseeched sweetly with a natural rise and fall. The tempi of the solo quartet and the organ diverged slightly at the start of Christe eleison, but realigned well before the main chorus rejoined them for the reprise of the Kyrie.

Beginning in the men’s voices and working upward, the Gloria featured some stirring fanfare figures in the choral writing. Christensen lent firm but initially too deferential support from the organ in this putatively inspiring praise-song, but he brought the instrumental dynamic up well for the decisive cadence at “glorificamus te.” After the smooth interplay of soloists, semi-chorus, and main chorus in “gratias agimus tibi,” Ehrlich and his forces rounded off the movement with the emphatic Quoniam and vigorous fugal “Cum sancto spiritu.”

In the Credo Dvořák most perceptibly pursued his own course rather than following the examples of his Austrian-German predecessors. Though harmonically a mostly conservative composer, he allowed himself a bit more latitude here, complemented by the use of the organ’s more Romantic sounds, particularly the string celeste. The performers made the most of the expressive harmony of “et homo factus est” (and was made man). Crucifixus was more animated than most settings, but the musicians did not fail to evoke its drama, especially the simulated sobbing at “et sepultus est” unusual restraint.

The many repetitions of “Sanctus” sometimes felt too abbreviated to clearly establish their harmonies in the reverberant sanctuary of First Church, but they built up to a galvanizing Hosanna sequence. The Benedictus sounded beautifully reflective before the powerful return of Hosanna.

Following his own instincts again, Dvořák opens his Agnus Dei with a calm fugue, first for soloists, then the chorus, and he again uses more chromatic sounds at “miserere nobis” (have mercy on us) while building to several minor climaxes. The concluding “Dona nobis pacem” (Grant us peace) featured a tender and silkily legato diminuendo to the warm, serene final cadence.

Fittingly for a native of Switzerland, Martin’s (1890-1974) bears the influence not only of France and Germany but also of music from the Renaissance to the 20th century. Though he largely resists the twelve-tone system that many of his contemporaries employed, he does not ignore it altogether. His idiom, though frequently complex, rarely ventures far from the tonal. Advanced harmonic language and the absence of instrumental accompaniment undeniably make his Mass for Double Choir a greater challenge for the performers than the Dvořák we heard. While the Spectrum Singers’ made a gratifyingly constant emotional commitment, they less consistently executed some choral fundamentals (e.g., clarity of blend allowing harmonic transparency, and crisply enunciated text).

Martin uses two contrasting approaches to the Kyrie text: the mystical, plainchant-influenced opening gives way to a livelier treatment as the worshiper seems to become more insistent. The first section had a beguiling intimacy and austerity; however, with the succeeding section’s rising tessitura and dynamic came greater vibrato and less lucidity of harmony, compounded by the reverberant room though the final phrase emerged with striking beauty.

The compellingly hushed, awestruck opening of the Gloria left room for its thrilling crescendo. Following the energetic “Gratias agimus tibi,” Ehrlich and the singers  fully realized Martin’s masterful double-choral writing in the Domine Deus section. An especially delicious light, delicate touch at “Cum Sancto Spiritu” deserved note, as did the surprisingly quiet and effective ending.

The performers handled the early part of the simple and direct Credo well, and as it grew more textually varied and harmonically sophisticated they never lost concentration. “Et incarnatus est” was moving for its sense of piety while Crucifixus was suitably anguished. The soft-spoken grief of “et sepultus est” unfortunately tempted some singers into relaxing their support and finishing slightly under pitch, which left the opening of Et resurrexit (in the same hushed awe as the Gloria) in an uncomfortable place. However, as the music became more extrovertedly joyful, the situation improved, though heavy vibrato regrettably obscured the final Amen.

Martin’s Sanctus begins more mystically, intimately, with French-influenced harmony (Ehrlich’s excellent notes liken this music to “a bit of floating frankincense”), and the musicians produced a ravishing effect. Compelling rhythmic ostinatos entered with “Pleni sunt coeli” and “Benedictus,” but with increasing intensity and dynamic, the also-increasing vibrato again made the harmonies more difficult to perceive.

The concluding Agnus Dei, composed four years after the rest of the Mass, betrays only the most subtle stylistic differences. Ehrlich elicited fervor from his singers in the repeated pleas for mercy, and the complementary functions of Choir I (speech-rhythm in octaves, simulating  plainchant) and Choir II (conventionally rhythmic, supplying harmony) meshed appealingly. The rejoined two choirs formed nine-part harmony in the final beautiful and moving plea for peace. My thanks to John Ehrlich and the Spectrum Singers for their ongoing traversal of works on the periphery of the choral repertoire that deserve more exposure.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

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