The Spectrum Singers, directed by its founder John Ehrlich, contributed the earliest Christmas program I’ve encountered, on Saturday at First Church, Cambridge. It is a pity there is hardly any choral literature specific to Thanksgiving (hello, composers?), but given the perceived onset of winter, greatly shortened hours of daylight, and of course, the countless other Christmas-themed choral concerts, one can hardly blame Spectrum for its tradition of getting “Christmas prelude” concerts to its public early. As has been his practice for 45 years with the group, Ehrlich chose mostly short familiar and unusual pieces, this time spanning the 16th century to the present. James Barkovic accompanied stylishly and sensitively on the organ and piano, as needed.
Allelluja, freuet euch, ihr Christen alle by Andreas Hammerschmidt (1612-1675) made a joyful opener, characterized by incisive rhythm and terraced dynamics, the latter often due to the composer’s offsetting the full chorus with a four-part men’s chorus he termed Favoriti. Additionally, the singers clearly enjoyed the refrain after every verse: “Joy, joy upon joy, Christ . . . is the sun of mercy.” The a cappella setting of the folk tune Joseph, lieber Joseph mein by Erhard Bodenschatz (1576-1636) utilizes an interesting mix of languages (German and Latin) as well as triple and common-time meters. In contrast to the Hammerschmidt work, Spectrum’s gentle singing here reflected the first two stanzas’ cradle song more than the praise-song of the last. The earliest as well as best known of the Renaissance and early Baroque music was Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Ave Maria sung with affecting warmth and caressing legato.
“And the glory of the Lord,” accompanied by Barkovic on piano, represented Handel’s Messiah. While the sections made well-defined entrances, enunciation ranged from crisp to casual, and I missed the gravitas of the extra octave string basses would have supplied. Alles was Odem hat, lobet den Herrn (All that has breath, praise the Lord), a fugal excerpt from J. S. Bach’s motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (Sing to the Lord a new song) was certainly one of the most demanding works in the concert. Though First Church’s reverberant acoustic occasionally blurred Bach’s complex polyphony, steady rhythm and varied articulation mostly kept textures clear, and the singers handled the challenging extended melismas well.
Anton Bruckner’s Ave Maria provided a Romantic contrast to Victoria’s more ethereal setting. The four-part women’s voices in the first phrases sweetly offset the warm four-part men’s chorus that followed. The three iterations of “Jesus”, growing from mystical to proclamatory and uniting the women and men for the first time, made a dramatic climax. Prominent vibrato regrettably muddied the harmony of the subsequent Sancta Maria, mater Dei, but happily this improved during the extended diminuendo to the serene “Amen.” In Hodie Christus natus est (Today Christ was born) by the distinguished Canadian composer Healey Willan (1880-1968), Ehrlich obtained numerous telling dynamic contrasts, and the chorus largely navigated skillfully the frequent unexpected harmonic progressions, finishing with a celebratory “Alleluia.”
A typical setting of the Sussex Carol (On Christmas Night All Christians Sing) features high spirits and a brisk jig rhythm, but Vaughan Williams opted generally for a gentle, contemplative tone. Barkovic’s organ registration began with soft string celestes; the singers entered relatively quietly and mostly stayed there. Following the SATB a cappella middle verse, the dynamic grew to mezzo forte in the final verse (“All out of darkness we have light . . .”), reaching a modest climax in the last two lines of text before the organ postlude tapered down to a calm conclusion. Holst’s Lullay my Liking had enchanting atmosphere thanks to the flexible rubato achieved by Ehrlich and the chorus as well as expressive singing by soloists soprano Kaitlyn Hess, alto Mara Goldberg, and tenor David Potts. A Spotless Rose, by Herbert Howells, was similarly fragrant, helped by attentive dynamics, e.g., the evocative crescendo on the word “blowing,” though too much vibrato also obscured Howells’s complex harmonies near the end. Mark Andrew Cleveland sang the important baritone solo with distinction.
After Howells’s spotless rose, appropriately enough, came “There is no rose of such vertu” from Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. This movement’s original harp accompaniment transferred well to the piano in Barkovic’s hands though I was less fond of adding men’s voices to a piece originally designed for trebles only: the change renders the climax of “Gloria in excelsis Deo” rather more powerful but also more earthbound. Nonetheless, Spectrum sang with refinement, and the final decrescendo trailed off exquisitely into the ether. In his arrangement of Torches, John Joubert (1927-2019) makes the outer verses extroverted, pitting the forte angular harmonies of the organ against the melody sung in octaves by the choir. The a cappella central verse, a lullaby to the infant Jesus, sounds more subdued in four-part harmony. Ehrlich and the chorus made the contrast of the verses highly effective.
Much of the choral output of Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943) is immediately recognizable owing to his penchants for many added major seconds to chords, relaxed tempos, freedom from strict meter, etc. One could argue that he uses these stylistic trademarks most pleasingly in his setting of O Magnum Mysterium, and Spectrum’s expressive performance bore this out. Generally the singing had its intended mesmerizing effect, beginning in quiet rapture, building to the climactic Alleluia, and finally diminishing through the coda to a rich, deep final D major chord.
A traditional Bohemian carol, The Angels and the Shepherds, in a delicious arrangement by Stephen Paulus (1949-2014), assigned the accompaniment to a three-person handbell ensemble drawn from the chorus (sopranos Jill Fekete and Isabella Ricciardi and bass Ron Armstrong) and flutist Jacqueline DeVoe. The bells lent a note of festivity and the flute’s merry pipings likely represented the music made by the shepherds. The angels (sopranos and altos) first gave great tidings to the shepherds (tenors and basses) who then responded reverently before all joined forces leading to an ecstatic final Alleluia. Sir Christèmas, by William Mathias (1934-1992), is similarly festive while using more modernist music, including quartal harmonies, bracing cross-rhythms, and a powerful organ accompaniment. A spirited dialogue between the company of “good lords” and Sir Christèmas, culminated in the rowdy call to drink well, make good cheer, and sing joyfully “Nowell!”
In a program otherwise made up of exquisite miniatures, the Lauda per la Natività del Signore (Praise for the Nativity of the Lord) of Ottorino Respighi stood as the outlier. Nearly half an hour long, it required three solo singers, a wind ensemble (two flutes, two bassoons, oboe, and English horn), piano four-hands, and triangle. Its text resembles that of The Angels and the Shepherds, but with greater detail and additional characters: in addition to angel and shepherd choruses we had an individual angel and shepherd as well as Mary herself. The wind players portrayed a beguiling pastoral scene, their music soon taken up by the Angel, radiantly voiced by soprano Sarah Yanovitch Vitale, followed by an angel chorus. Tenor Charles Blandy (ably filling in for the indisposed Marcio de Oliveira) as the Shepherd made a fervent prayer to be guided to the manger; a chorus, now of shepherds at the manger, followed him. Mary then appeared, portrayed movingly by mezzo soprano Katherine Maysek, declaring her profound love for her newborn son. A chorus (still the shepherds) again responded. Respighi set the continuing interactions between divine and earthly beings most effusively. We particularly enjoyed the close harmony of four-part men as the shepherds at the stable, the full chorus (“Glory, praise and honor to you”) growing in block chord formations from piano to fortissimo and receding to pianissimo, and, following “Gloria in excelsis deo”, Vitale’s sublime wordless ascent (in diminuendo!) to a celestial soft high C. Though Respighi effectively calculated Lauda per la Natività to please listeners, it requires skilled and committed performers; on this occasion it certainly found them.
My thanks to John Ehrlich and the chorus for another rewarding evening of lesser-known Yuletide choral literature which mostly eschewed the Christmas top 40; even longtime choral connoisseurs can take pleasure in these Spectrums of discoveries.