Beginning with God Speaks to Each of Us, Gwyneth Walker’s 1999 setting of a poem by Rilke, “Divine Encounters” brought to First Church Cambridge Saturday an atmosphere of excellence, discovery, and beauty that is the hallmark of Seraphim Singers’ concerts.
Colin Lynch on the organ produced deep earthy tones and surprising bell-like notes that conveyed a sort of hushed interiority, acquiring hints of Philip Glass-like laconic stillness as the singing unfolded with remarkable tone painting. Cerebral and skeptical as many of us may be, we could not but participate in Rilke’s encounter, in which immemorial other encounters are encountered: “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.”
The Deceiver, composed in 2017 by Christina Whitten Thomas on a text by Marian Partee, retold Jacob’s theft of his brother’s birthright, exile, and struggle with the angel. The score made subtle use of dynamics to convey dramatic nodes. Men’s voices in a deep bass register, as in Orthodox liturgy, gave an epic dimension to the story throughout. Dread at the angel’s appearance was fostered through a threatening score reminiscent of Orff, as though the angel’s throbbing wings and terror might engulf us. When Jacob becomes Israel, “A deeper wound is healed. The Deceiver is beloved.” Soaring soprano voices combined with the deep bass ones to add grace to the gravity, inseparable and diametrically opposed.
I lingered on the two opening pieces because they were ravishingly beautiful and fresh, unlike anything else, yet securely rooted in a long and perennial tradition. Egil Hovland then told the story of Saul on the road to Damascus. The story was read from the Acts of the Apostles, interspersed by organ and voices with great theatrical flair. The most effective moment was the calling out “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me” – more full of pleading than judgment, and repeated as simply “Saul, Saul” in a powerfully hushed whisper.
James Woodman set Edwin Muir’s “The Annunciation” to a commission from the Seraphim Singers. A brooding organ part helped to foster a trance-like feeling of rapture between Mary and Gabriel, elegant and mystical, beyond words. Graham Gordon Ramsey’s Mirabile Mysterium (2012), using a Latin text by Sophronius of Jerusalem, solemn, was reminiscent of Gregorian chant, rising slowly skyward like incense — inhabited by God’s peace like the figures of Piero della Francesca. Vaughan Williams’s The Voice of the Whirlwind seemed more terrestrial by comparison. Based on the “Book of Job,” it ended the first half with a doxological feeling and a score imitating the gyrations of a whirlwind.
An astonishingly beautiful piece by Tomàs de Victoria, Resplenduit facies eius, on the Transfiguration, opened the second half with but half the singers. Their perfect articulation of the Latin words made their sounds an integral part of Victoria’s complex polyphony, creating a sui generis realm of supernatural radiance. After a melodious example by Johann Hermann Schein, the men sang Victoria’s absolutely sublime O sacrum convivium. Counter-Reformation polyphony evoked the ideal of a capacious catholicism uniting a diversity of voices in contrast to schismatic churches based on doctrinal uniformity.
In many ways, the thrilling Poulenc that followed, Ave verum corpus, drew its power and freedom from a similar experience of capaciousness. Gerald Finzi’s Welcome, Sweet and Sacred Feast, gave us an excellent example of word painting combined with a straightforward reading of Henry Vaughan’s poem, encountering God in a deeply Anglican fashion, private, sincere, and utterly passionate.
The beautiful singing, fine sensitivity and expressiveness of Brahms’s Im Herbst, and Schumann’s An die Sterne transported us to an entirely different plane, to a sense of the divine immanent in Nature, encountered through feeling and sweeping narrative, through longing and dense layers of sound delighting in secret dissonances. Frank Ferko’s Llama de amor vivo, a setting of a poem by St John of the Cross, continued the double chorus arrangement from the Schumann and made use of lovely echoes and cross-currents. It also featured sudden mood shifts, from solemn to bursts of passion and back again, ending on an ecstatic, indeed seraphic note.
Anne Davenport is a scholar of early modern theology and philosophy. She has published books on medieval theories of infinity and Descartes. Her most recent book is “Suspicious Moderate” on the life and works of the 17th-century English Franciscan, Francis à Sancta Clara.