Dunedin Consort’s beautiful singing and intelligent programming in Edinburgh

17/11/2019

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Victoria, MacMillan, Williams, Lobo, McDowall, Gibbons, Bingham: Dunedin Consort / Nicholas Mulroy (director). Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh, 16.11.2019. (SRT)

VictoriaOfficium Defunctorum
LoboVersa est in Luctum
MacMillan – ‘A Child’s Prayer’; ‘Bring us, O Lord God’
McDowall – ‘Standing as I do before God’
Williams – ‘O Saviour of the World’
Gibbons – ‘Drop, drop, slow tears’
Bingham – ‘Watch with me’

Any time I have heard the Dunedin Consort they have been playing either as the orchestra or, more frequently, as orchestra and chorus, but this is the first time I have heard the chorus performing alone. An entire evening of unaccompanied singing is unusual for them, so it is a pleasure to report that they made a fantastic job of it.

The concert’s title, Requiem Aeternam: Music of Loss and Consolation, tells you most of what you need to know about the programme, but it avoided monotony of tone or colour by some clever choices of repertoire. The central work was Victoria’s six-part Officium Defunctorum, but its movements were interspersed with music by other composers, mostly of the 20th and 21st century. Such an approach can lead to awkward see-sawing, but here it sounded wholly appropriate and, at times, very moving.

Victoria’s 1605 Requiem sounded sensational, for one thing. I don’t always enjoy the Dunedin’s one-to-a-part approach to Bach and Handel – even with the best intentions it can sound ascetic and a bit spare – but with the voices (thirteen of them) liberated from the orchestra, the result was revelatory. Pearly sopranos soared high above mahogany basses, with tenors and altos providing colour that did much more than simply fill in the texture. The resonance of Canongate Kirk definitely helped, but this was Renaissance polyphony as it is meant to be heard, the lines spiralling around and through one another like characters in a sacred drama.

Nicholas Mulroy is a regular Dunedin collaborator, though as tenor rather than director. He conducted the chorus with a singer’s ear, nowhere more advantageously than in Gibbons’s beautiful ‘Drop, drop, slow tears’, here taken unusually slowly so as to make every harmonic move sound sensationally beautiful. The more recent music worked every bit as well, too, particularly Cecilia McDowall’s hauntingly beautiful setting of the last words of Edith Cavell, a British nurse executed by German soldiers in 1915. Roderick Williams’s ‘O Saviour of the World’, written as a response to Tallis, used keening harmonies to simulate the agony of the text’s pleading, and James MacMillan’s ‘Bring us, O Lord God’ carried a sense of yearning that looked forward to the afterlife with hope, but acknowledged the unsatisfactory life that, for now, we are still trapped in.

With such beautiful singing and, particularly, intelligent programming, every component of this programme was exquisitely formed, but the cumulative impact of the whole felt almost overwhelming.

Simon Thompson

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