Welsh Camerata’s ‘O’ is for Advent

17/12/2017

Various: Welsh Camerata / Andrew Wilson-Dickson (conductor). Church of St Mary of the Angels Canton, Cardiff, 15.12.2017. (PCG)

Arvo PärtO Weisheit; O Adonai; O Schlüssel Davids; O König aller Volker
Pawel ŁukaszewskiO Radix Jesse
James MacMillanO radiant dawn
Andrew Wilson-DicksonO Immanuel (first performance)
Robert RamseyO sapientia
Pierre CertonO Adonai
Marc-Antoine CharpentierO Radix Jesse; O Rex gentium
Antoine MornableO Clavis David
Carlo GesualdoO Oriens
Pierre de ManchicourtO Emanuel
Henry PurcellIn nomine a 5
Giovanni GabrieliCanzona a 4; Canzona a 10
Claudio MonteverdiMagnificat a 8

This imaginatively conceived Advent programme centred around a series of Antiphons intended to be sung at various services during the pre-Christmas season as part of the church liturgy preceding the Magnificat: seven of them, each given here first as plainchant and then in settings by Renaissance and modern composers. All of the items begin with the exclamation ‘O!’—hence the overall title of this concert.

It has to be observed that the resulting sequence of twenty-one items which constituted the first half of this concert (given, at the request of Andrew Wilson-Dickson, without any breaks for applause) made for a very lengthy series of performances extending for well over an hour; and that only one of the items, Charpentier’s O Rex gentium, was scored other than for the chorus. The singers of the Welsh Camerata managed the lengthy programme with skill; the sopranos in particular produced well-tuned and engaging tones. Inevitably, though, there were moments when the tuning slipped a little — oddly enough, more so in the Renaissance items more than the modern ones. Mark Bishop, a tenor from the choir, gave us the aforementioned Charpentier antiphon as a counter-tenor. He sounded more like a tenor with an extended upper range than a typical falsettist, but his registers were well integrated, and he made an excellent impression.

The combination of Renaissance and modern works gave plenty of variety to the programme. There were occasional startling contrasts, as when MacMillan’s O radiant dawn seemed to be less adventurous harmonically than the Gesualdo setting of the same text which had preceded it, at least until MacMillan’s oddly unsettled treatment of the ‘Amen’. The Pärt setting of O Adonai, scored for male voices only, was particularly effective in this performance. Among the Renaissance works, that by Mornable (a composer of such obscurity that even his dates of birth and death are unknown) was quite a revelation, with its soaring cantilena lines reminiscent of his near-contemporary Tallis.

This section of the concert concluded with the first performance of the conductor’s own setting of O Immanuel. It has to be noted that — at the end of a very long first half — the singing of the choir was not calculated to set the music off to best effect; the high soprano lines in particular showed signs of tiredness, and were unnecessarily strenuous and over-forceful as a consequence. The effect was of bold daylight shining into the textures of a work which the composer had described in his programme note as ‘a mysterious ritual, ancient and processional, the aural equivalent of the heavy scent of incense’. Perhaps, like so much modern choral music, the work really needs a professional choir to achieve that sort of result.

The choir took a well-earned rest during the three instrumental pieces which began the second half, and then returned refreshed to the stage for the final performance of Monteverdi’s 1640 setting of the Magnificat. While the two earlier settings published as part of the composer’s Vespers of 1610 are relatively well-known, this later treatment of the text is more dramatic in its layout; it plays fast and loose with the liturgical order of the words as with the recurrent refrain of Fecit potentiam between the individual verses of the central section of the canticle. The setting of the Gloria for tenor duet recalls in some ways the grander proportions of the more elaborate of the 1610 versions, but in general the later and briefer treatment of the text has more dramatic impact. That might be expected of a composer who by this stage in his career had accumulated ample experience in the field of opera.

The singers, occasional moments of tiredness apart, acquitted themselves well, and the ensemble of twelve instrumentalists brought plenty of character to their accompaniments in the Monteverdi and Charpentier items, as well as their various solo items. Andrew Wilson-Dickson, as usual, brought much enthusiasm to his spoken introductions; and the programme leaflet was a model of its kind, complete with texts and translations. Its mediaeval cover illustration of the Annunciation gave an amusing and curious effect: the Archangel Gabriel, presumably intending to arrange the visitation of the Holy Spirit to the Virgin in the form of a dove, seemed to be intent on pushing a miniaturised plucked chicken into her eye — a procedure to which she unsurprisingly appeared to be raising objections.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

For more about the Welsh Camerata click here.

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