"A Choral Celebration" - what better title to encompass what seems to be a grab-bag of mostly unfamiliar choral works? When we think of mixed programmes of choral music, we are likely to expect a quantity of music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, with perhaps something twentieth-century for "spice": motets, madrigals, movements from masses. Contained within this evening's programme is a collection of sacred choral works remarkable in their diversity and scope, despite the limited time-span of their creation. None of tonight's music was composed before the middle of the nineteenth century, several pieces date from within the past ten years. In them, we discover the continuing, ever-changing richness and viability of religious music available to any choir willing to rise to worthwhile challenges.
Painters, throughout history, have depicted scenes from the lives of the saints, no matter the depth of their own religious feelings. Just so, composers, whether believers or not, have used the traditional forms of religious expression as vessels within which to structure their own inspirations. One element which does unite the composers on tonight's programme is the sincerity of their own Christian impulse.
In a century filled with Romantic extravagance, when even religious music succumbed to histrionic excess, the motets of Anton Bruckner stand as models of cool restraint and purity of expression. Bruckner emerged from the simple peasant world of Upper Austria, was fortunate enough to be educated amidst the Baroque splendour of the great monastery of St. Florian, and developed into perhaps the fines organ virtuoso in Europe, without ever abandoning the simple Catholic faith of his boyhood village, even in the cosmopolitan environment of Vienna. Amongst his ten motets, Pange, lingua, composed in 1868 to a well-known Corpus Christi text, uses the archaic Phrygian mode. The gradual Locus iste, from the liturgy used in consecrating a church, was written the following year for the consecration of the Votive Chapel in the new cathedral in Linz. Vexilla Regis, from the Good Friday liturgy, was Bruckner's last motet, and dates from the early 1890's. All three motets combine simplicity and directness of utterance with an austere and spacious time scale in a way that is uniquely Brucknerian.
Rather than perform the three motets as a set, we have chosen to intersperse them with three (or four, depending on how you count them) twentieth-century examples of the motet ideal, much as one clears the palate between courses of a festive meal.
John Tavener, who, like Górecki, has by now reached a level of renown rare among living composers of art-music, should not be confused with another English composer, John Taverner, who lived 450 years ago. The earlier John suffered from the vicissitudes of the English Reformation; the current one lives during a period of greater religious tolerance, in which his Greek Orthodoxy, assumed by choice rather than birth, can be expressed even in the greatest bastions of the Church of England. His Collegium Regale, setting the Eversong canticles Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, was composed in 1986 on commission from the Choir of King's College, Cambridge. The refrain, "Greater in honour than the cherubim", is part of the usual Orthodox Magnificat text, though unknown in the Anglican liturgy. Tavener incorporates elements of Byzantine chant into the verses, including microtonal inflections and drones, whilst in the refrains reminding us of the long tradition of Orthodox polyphonic choral chanting.
The late French master Olivier Messiaen is famous for several things: his development of a system of non-symmetrical rhythms derived largely from Indian and Balinese models; his frequent use of authentic birdsong as fundamental melodic material; and the Catholic mysticism which permeates most of his works. The last-mentioned ingredient, and to some extent the first, is certainly found in the early, short communion motet O Sacrum Convivium!, composed in 1937. The motet's quiet intensity is emphasized by an extremely slow tempo, so typical of Messiaen. This tempo also masks the music's rhythmic sophistication, consisting of bars in which temporal values of a quaver (half of a beat) are either added to or subtracted from the fundamental pulse. The slow tempo and unequal meter combine to give the work a timeless quality which makes it seem far grander than its five-minute length would otherwise imply; the harmony, with its succession of added-note chords, at a faster tempo might suggest jazz.
The distinguished Polish composer Henrik Górecki has become a familiar name in recent years, due to the phenomenal success of his Third Symphony, one recording of which (there have been at least five by now) has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and made inroads into the popular album charts in the U.K. The transcendent, deceptive simplicity of Górecki's style is nowhere more apparent than in Totus tuus, written for performance at a mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II in Warsaw, in July 1987. Its simple harmonies, slow, repetitive short phrases and almost obsessive examination of each word in its short text build inexorably to a climax of gentle ecstasy before subsiding or, better, disappearing, into serenity.
The Swedish organist and composer Otto Olsson was like both Bruckner and Messiaen, in that all three spent much of their careers, in addition to their other activities, as church organists: Bruckner at Linz Cathedral, Messiaen at the Madeleine in Paris, and Olsson at the Gustav Vasa Church in Stockholm, where he served for almost fifty years. Olsson's principal musical influences were French, particularly César Franck and Gabriel Fauré. His most important works were written early in his career; perhaps the greatest of them, the Te Deum, was composed in 1906. They are easily audible to anyone conversant with a work such as Fauré's Requiem, without making the Te Deum seem in any way derivative. The opening motif functions as source material for much of the piece, at times used as a fugal theme, at others simply as a unifying reminiscence. The work's apparent artlessness is deceptive, concealing a wealth of technique. Olsson's relative obscurity should not blind us to the greatness of his Te Deum; we hope that our performance this evening, the Bach Choir's second in Hong Kong, may help lead it to its rightful place in the repertoire, somewhere in the vicinity of Fauré's masterwork.
- Jerome Hoberman -