Friday, 27 October 2017

Sistine Chapel Choir shines in new Christmas CD

The Sistine Screamers, as this choir had in recent decades (and not unfairly) been nicknamed, has been completely re-built and scarcely resembles its (recent) former self. It has now made a handful of recordings with the august Deutsche Grammophon, each release providing further evidence of this choir's total transformation from cacophonous rabble to an elegant, refined and homogeneous chorus angelorum, and it is well on the way to becoming a truly top-shelf liturgical choir (again), as one would expect of the pope's own choir! DoM, Monsignor Palombella explains, in the videos below, a bit about the choir's present day incarnation (for instance, the choir now employs professional men from around the globe, and the boys' singing schedule seems to be rigorous indeed). Added to which, the DoM seems to be in the habit of exploring the Vatican's musical archives for long forgotten manuscripts. How nice to see, also, that composers other than Palestrina (and Perosi) are now again given prominence by this choir. Wonderful indeed to hear. I'll certainly be hoping for this latest CD in my stocking!

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Handel, Israel in Egypt from the Proms, 2017

William Christie conducted a dazzling performance by the Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (not his own Les Arts Florissants). Five starts without doubt.

I reviewed a performance by the Westminster Abbey Choir from last year. That was an underwhelming performance of this work if ever there was one. Christie, however, has the exact measure of this work, and what a delight it was to hear. You can do so yourself below.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

New Westminster Cathedral Choir Recording: Sublimely Sung Sheppard

Somewhat tardily I draw your attention to a consummate recording of John Sheppard's Media Vita. Also included are Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria and Missa Cantate.

The reviews universally, and accurately, rate this recording as exceptional in every respect (e.g. here). 

The only comment I shall add pertains to the recording venue: All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London rather than the Westminster Cathedral itself. Perhaps a first? 

Pontifex Maximus, Franciscus the benevolent, issues Magnum Principium, motu proprio

This is the key change (emphasis in the original):

"[From 1 October 2017] can. 838 will read as follows: 
Can. 838 - §1. The ordering and guidance of the sacred liturgy depends solely upon the authority of the Church, namely, that of the Apostolic See and, as provided by law, that of the diocesan Bishop. 
§2. It is for the Apostolic See to order the sacred liturgy of the universal Church, publish liturgical books, recognise adaptations approved by the Episcopal Conference according to the norm of law, and exercise vigilance that liturgical regulations are observed faithfully everywhere. 
§3. It pertains to the Episcopal Conferences to faithfully prepare versions of the liturgical books in vernacular languages, suitably accommodated within defined limits, and to approve and publish the liturgical books for the regions for which they are responsible after the confirmation of the Apostolic See
§4. Within the limits of his competence, it belongs to the diocesan Bishop to lay down in the Church entrusted to his care, liturgical regulations which are binding on all."
The text leading up to the change in canon law is fairly generic fluff composed by a seasoned Vatican apparatchik, with sufficient ambiguity to allow one man to say "nothing to see here" and another to say "there is something rotten in the state of Denmark" (though the latter's hand is strengthened by the simple logic that there is little point in passing amended legislation if all was intended to remain as it was).

Over the course of time it will become apparent whether this surprising foray into matters liturgical by a pope whose own conduct seems to suggest he care little about such issues, is an example of his self professed pacifism, or a battle cry to bishops around the world to mangle and commit further acts of wanton vandalism on the liturgy of the Latin Church. In other words, whether this gesture which prima facie is innocuous, is abused to achieve ideological ends. Hmmm, when has that happened before?

There are two explanatory notes issued alongside Magnum Principium:

Key to Reading Magnum Principium
Explanatory Canonical Note on Magnum Principium

The latter provides some interesting historical information about Sacram Liturgiam. I do so hope that scholars of history pore over this document to ensure its accuracy.


Apostolic Letter issued motu proprio of the supreme pontiff
 Magnum Principium by which can. 838 of the code of canon law is modified 
 The great principle, established by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, according to which liturgical prayer be accommodated to the comprehension of the people so that it might be understood, required the weighty task of introducing the vernacular language into the liturgy and of preparing and approving the versions of the liturgical books, a charge that was entrusted to the Bishops. 
 The Latin Church was aware of the attendant sacrifice involved in the partial loss of liturgical Latin, which had been in use throughout the world over the course of centuries. However it willingly opened the door so that these versions, as part of the rites themselves, might become the voice of the Church celebrating the divine mysteries along with the Latin language. 
 At the same time, especially given the various clearly expressed views of the Council Fathers with regard to the use of the vernacular language in the liturgy, the Church was aware of the difficulties that might present themselves in this regard. On the one hand it was necessary to unite the good of the faithful of a given time and culture and their right to a conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations with the substantial unity of the Roman Rite. On the other hand the vernacular languages themselves, often only in a progressive manner, would be able to become liturgical languages, standing out in a not dissimilar way to liturgical Latin for their elegance of style and the profundity of their concepts with the aim of nourishing the faith. 
 This was the aim of various Liturgical Laws, Instructions, Circular Letters, indications and confirmations of liturgical books in the various vernacular languages issued by the Apostolic See from the time of the Council which was true both before as well as after the laws established by the Code of Canon Law. 
 The criteria indicated were and remain at the level of general guidelines and, as far as possible, must be followed by Liturgical Commissions as the most suitable instruments so that, across the great variety of languages, the liturgical community can arrive at an expressive style suitable and appropriate to the individual parts, maintaining integrity and accurate faithfulness especially in translating some texts of major importance in each liturgical book. 
 Because the liturgical text is a ritual sign it is a means of oral communication. However, for the believers who celebrate the sacred rites the word is also a mystery. Indeed when words are uttered, in particular when the Sacred Scriptures are read, God speaks to us. In the Gospel Christ himself speaks to his people who respond either themselves or through the celebrant by prayer to the Lord in the Holy Spirit. 
 The goal of the translation of liturgical texts and of biblical texts for the Liturgy of the Word is to announce the word of salvation to the faithful in obedience to the faith and to express the prayer of the Church to the Lord. For this purpose it is necessary to communicate to a given people using its own language all that the Church intended to communicate to other people through the Latin language. While fidelity cannot always be judged by individual words but must be sought in the context of the whole communicative act and according to its literary genre, nevertheless some particular terms must also be considered in the context of the entire Catholic faith because each translation of texts must be congruent with sound doctrine. 
 It is no surprise that difficulties have arisen between the Episcopal Conferences and the Apostolic See in the course of this long passage of work. In order that the decisions of the Council about the use of vernacular languages in the liturgy can also be of value in the future a vigilant and creative collaboration full of reciprocal trust between the Episcopal Conferences and the Dicastery of the Apostolic See that exercises the task of promoting the Scared Liturgy, i.e. the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, is absolutely necessary. For this reason, in order that the renewal of the whole liturgical life might continue, it seemed opportune that some principles handed on since the time of the Council should be more clearly reaffirmed and put into practice. 
 Without doubt, attention must be paid to the benefit and good of the faithful, nor must the right and duty of Episcopal Conferences be forgotten who, together with Episcopal Conferences from regions sharing the same language and with the Apostolic See, must ensure and establish that, while the character of each language is safeguarded, the sense of the original text is fully and faithfully rendered and that even after adaptations the translated liturgical books always illuminate the unity of the Roman Rite. 
 To make collaboration in this service to the faithful between the Apostolic See and Episcopal Conferences easier and more fruitful, and having listened to the advice of the Commission of Bishops and Experts that I established, I order, with the authority entrusted to me, that the canonical discipline currently in force in can. 838 of the C.I.C. be made clearer so that, according to what is stated in the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, in particular in articles 36 §§3.4, 40 and 63, and in the Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio Sacram Liturgiam, n. IX, the competency of the Apostolic See surrounding the translation of liturgical books and the more radical adaptations established and approved by Episcopal Conferences be made clearer, among which can also be numbered eventual new texts to be inserted into these books. 
 Therefore, in the future can. 838 will read as follows: 
 Can. 838 - §1. The ordering and guidance of the sacred liturgy depends solely upon the authority of the Church, namely, that of the Apostolic See and, as provided by law, that of the diocesan Bishop. 
 §2. It is for the Apostolic See to order the sacred liturgy of the universal Church, publish liturgical books, recognise adaptations approved by the Episcopal Conference according to the norm of law, and exercise vigilance that liturgical regulations are observed faithfully everywhere. 
 §3. It pertains to the Episcopal Conferences to faithfully prepare versions of the liturgical books in vernacular languages, suitably accommodated within defined limits, and to approve and publish the liturgical books for the regions for which they are responsible after the confirmation of the Apostolic See
 §4. Within the limits of his competence, it belongs to the diocesan Bishop to lay down in the Church entrusted to his care, liturgical regulations which are binding on all. 
 Consequently this is how art. 64 §3 of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus as well as other laws are to be interpreted, particularly those contained in the liturgical books concerning their revision. Likewise I order that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments modify its own “Regulations” on the basis of the new discipline and help the Episcopal Conferences to fulfil their task as well as working to promote ever more the liturgical life of the Latin Church. 
 Everything that I have decreed in this Apostolic Letter issued Motu Proprio must be observed in all its parts, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, even if it be worthy of particular mention, and I hereby set forth and I dispose that it be promulgated by publication in the daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, that it enter into force on 1 October 2017, and thereafter be published in Acta Apostolicae Sedis. 
 Given in Rome, at St. Peter’s, on 3 September of the year 2017, the fifth of my Pontificate 

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Bach, Weihnachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio), BWV 248, live from the K├Âlner Philharmonie

Quite simply the best concert I have attended. Well worth the trip from London. The Philharmonie's in-house team recorded the concert and is available for on-demand viewing (for how long I am not sure). The work is simultaneously choral, orchestral, sacred and didactic. Maestro Suzuki, not conducting from the harpsichords (a wise move I think), led a performance that dazzled the German audience. The English choir (four voices per part and all male altos) and orchestra, and the cast of four soloists (also singing the choir parts) were uniformly, exquisitely outstanding. Five stars without hesitation, and a wonderful way to mark the Christmas season. Programme available here with full performer details (in German). Recorded at 18.30 on 18 December 2016. ★★★★★

A Must Watch Video: The Sistine Chapel Choir

This simply superb piece by the US current affairs programme "60 Minutes" makes for compelling viewing. Rather than being simply a "puff piece", it actually delves into the woeful modern history of the choir, and how in a relatively short space of time, Monsignor Palombella has transformed the choir into one worthy of the task of singing at Papal Masses. The maestro's meticulous study of the choir's core repertoire, combined with an open-mindedness to outside influence (he must have taken advice from some English conductors), have ensured the development of the much purer, more professional sound we now hear. While many serious observers of happenings in Rome are, in many ways justifiably, alarmed by certain conduct of the Pope, this is one good news story for which the reigning Pontiff must be congratulated, even if simply for his passive inaction in not intervening in the good work by the current maestro di cappella. Indeed, perhaps that does the Pope an injustice, given that the choir seems to enjoy a close and cordial relationship with his Holiness (even if, as one cheeky chorister remarks with youthful candour, the Pope knows nothing about music!)

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Concert reviews: Three concerts, three weeks, three Masters of Music at Westminster Cathedral

Quite by coincidence, within the space of three weeks, I had the privilege of attending three concerts under the baton of past and present Masters of Music at Westminster Cathedral. First cab off the rank was James O'Donnell, the present Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey, conducting the Abbey Choir in Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt. Next was Martin Baker, incumbent at Westminster Cathedral, conducting the Cathedral Choir in polyphonic masterpieces from the Spanish renaissance. Finally, it was David Hill conducting the Bach Choir in Bach's magnum opus the Mass in B minor. I review each in turn below.

Bach Mass in B minor, BWV 232

Royal Festival Hall, 5 June 2016, 19.30

Susan Gritton Soprano (replaced by another soprano, details unknown)
Iestyn Davies Countertenor
Ed Lyon Tenor
Neil Davies Bass
Bach Choir
Florilegium on authentic instruments
David Hill Conductor

Rating: ★★★★½

The question of how to perform Bach's choral works is a vexed one, perhaps best confined to the hallowed environs of the academy. Far more important to a paying audience is: has the conductor made the chosen method work in the moment, with the resources at his disposal? 

At the Royal Festival Hall last Sunday night, David Hill made the most compelling case possible for Bach sung with large choral forces but a chamber sized period instrument orchestra. Strange bedfellows on paper, perhaps, but any scepticism about such a combination was dispelled in the opening bars of the Kyrie, as the Bach Choir, though massed, produced vocal lines of muscularity and suppleness by turns and set the scene for a thoroughly committed, engaging and, yes, refined performance of Bach's magnum opus. 

It is true that there were moments when the size of the choir did prevent a more agile presentation of the text (for instance, in the Credo with its many Ets , the "t" was often barely audible from any of the parts, and from time to time some of the bass and tenor parts sounded slightly stodgy, such as in the Confiteor of the Credo). But what was most impressive was the overall agility of such a large vocal force and its ability to shift gear with apparently effortless ease – for instance at key moments in the Sanctus and Dona nobis pacem. In short, we had almost all the benefits of a massed choir, with very few of the many possible downsides. 

Any doubts about how the conventionally sized period instrument orchestra would cope against the might of the formidably sized choir were also misplaced. Except for a few occasions when the strings in particular did recede into a sea of voices, the orchestra, playing with remarkably energetic fluency, provided for a perfect partnership with the robustness of the choral forces. In combination, the choir and orchestra produced moments of sizzling sonorority – in the Cum Sancto Spiritu we heard a blaze of brass and an almost feverish fugal finale, in the Sanctus an epic proclamatory opening, followed by a positively dance like presentation of the Pleni sunt caeli and Osanna sections.  

Only a quartet of vocal soloists was used and it was uniformly excellent. The advertised soprano Susan Gritton was replaced by another whose name I didn't quite catch, much to the horror of at least one male fan of the first mentioned singer who let out a out dramatic groan at the news she would not be singing. His disappointment would surely have been tempered by the ravishing performance given by the stand in, whose solo parts and duets alike were delivered with great grace and aplomb. I found her vocal agility in Laudamus te to be especially convincing. Iestyn Davies once again demonstrated why he is currently Britain's foremost countertenor, with lithe and dramatic singing by turns, transfixing the audience in a mesmerisingly melancholic account of the Angus Dei. It's rare that an audience doesn't take the opportunity at the end of a piece to rid themselves of all manner of restless tendencies, but they were in silent awe of the countertenor's delivery of the piece, and the orchestra's moving accompaniment. Ed Lyon's performances are always engaging – he impressed when I last heard him sing the tenor solos in the Johannes Passion at King's College Cambridge during Holy Week this year – and his solos and duets were no exception here. In the Benedictus the slightly reserved tunefulness of the flute – almost hinting at ambivalence – was overlaid by an elegant smoothness of delivery from Lyon. Neil Davies sang both of his solos with customary authority, though I enjoyed his Et in Spiritum more than his Quoniam tu solus. The former was delightfully mellifluous and in perfect harmony with the playful pair of oboes.  

The instrumental soloists were also superlative without exception. The only notable mistake was an wrong note in the natural horn during the Quoniam to Solus Sanctus for which no points can be deducted because the horn playing was so brilliant in every other respect – a point that the audience acknowledged during its ecstatic ovation. Trumpets were bullish but never unwieldy, and the chamber organ provided excellent continuo, occasionally producing flourishes of independent praiseworthiness.  

Hill employed tempi that are common in the period instrument performances, generally on the brisker side for both choruses and solos/duets, but never sounding rushed and always allowing for appropriate spaciousness of sound. 

So a wonderful performance in is own right, and evidence that Bach performed with large choral forces can be both dramatically and musically persuasive. The Bach Choir, an amateur choir in name only, rightly deserves its reputation as one of the finest choral ensembles in the world, and the observation once made by the Daily Telegraph that "Could anyone but David Hill have achieved such a fusion of English choral tradition and state-of-the-art baroque performance practice?" was certainly borne out in this masterful presentation of the B minor Mass

Treasures of the Spanish Renaissance

Westminster Cathedral, 25 May 2016, 19.30

Frances Kelly Harp
Sally Holman Bass dulcian
Peter Stevens Organ
Westminster Cathedral Choir
Martin Baker Conductor

Rating: ★★★★½

For this concert, Martin Baker and the Cathedral Choir presented a programme consisting entirely of polyphonic masterpieces from Spain's Siglo de Oro, marking the release of their new CD of Alosno Lobo's Lamentations by reprising a programme from 1985 when the choir (then under David Hill) committed works by Guerrero, Lobo and Vivanco to disc, many for the first time. As for that landmark disc, the choir was accompanied (at least for some of the works) by organ, bass dulcian, and harp. In a review of the CD, Gramophone magazine expressed some reservations about the blend of the instruments with the choir. There were no such problems at the recent concert, as organist, harpist and bass dulican player gave sensitive accompaniments which served only to embellish, and never to detract from, the singing.

The programme began with a string of some of Guerrero finest motets. A stylish account of O sacrum convivium, and an exuberant Regina caeli were particular highlights. Then we moved into Lobo, with his well known funeral motet Versa est in luctum which was sung by a small "schola" in semicircular formation around Martin Baker. Then it was back to Guerrero for his monumental motet Maria Magdalene, followed by the Gloria from Lobo's parody Mass based on the motet. Vivanco's now well known Magnificat, another Lobo motet and two Ave Marias by Victoria completed the programme - the eight part Ave Maria given a particularly noteworthy performance. We didn't hear any of the Lobo Lamentations, which was slightly odd given that is the feature of the Cathedral Choir's new CD.

Along with an abundance of plainchant, this repertoire is naturally at the heart of the Choir's daily activities, but in a concert setting this can be as much of a hindrance as a help. Yet there was no hint of anything "routine" about this performance. Singing as a cohesive unit, and injecting maximum intensity of expression into the pieces, the choir produced near flawless performances of the renaissance masterpieces, doing full justice to the technical and artistic genius of the composers. 

There were some minor technical infelicities – for instance a slightly uneven start to the Lobo Versa est in lucctum and the first half of the Guerrero motet Maria Magdalene was not as taut as the second half – but these did not cause any appreciable impact on the overall performance. 

Unfortunately, of more concern, were the few audience members who very nearly spoiled the atmosphere of the concert by clapping after each piece, despite an express injunction to refrain from clapping until the end of the concert. The offence was aggravated because the clapping would commence without fail straight after the choir finished singing but before the sound (in the Cathedral's generous acoustic) had been allowed to dissipate into oblivion. Out of consideration for the enjoyment of the rest of the paying audience, the Cathedral attendants should have politely asked the responsible parties to cease and desist. 

In summary, despite a minority of over-enthusiastic audience members, a wonderful night with singing of the highest order. The Cathedral Choir under Martin Baker keeps going from strength to strength. Speaking of which, I hope to review the choir's excellent new Alonso Lobo Lamentations CD at some point, advance copies of which the audience was able to purchase on the night (the opportunity to maximise initial sales not advanced by the absence of a card machine). In the mean time, there are reviews by the Guardian and BBC Radio 3 which give a good impression of what other critics are saying, and with which I am in broad agreement. Though, unlike the Guardian, I would give it a fifth star. 

Handel Israel in Egypt

Westminster Abbey, 17 May 2016, 19.00

Soloists From the choir
Westminster Abbey Choir
St James' Baroque On authentic instruments
James O'Donnell Conductor

Rating: ★★★

One of Handel's most enthralling oratorios, Israel in Egypt tells the Old Testament epic of the Israelites' persecution by Pharaoh, God's retributive punishment of the Egyptians in the form of 12 apocalyptic plagues, the Israelites' eventual flight from Pharaoh's horsemen, and finally their dramatic Divine salvation in the midst of the Red Sea. For this concert, performed in Westminster Abbey a mere dozen yards from where Handel is entombed, James O'Donnell conducted the Abbey Choir – comprised, as it would be for normal services, of professional men and boy trebles – and St. James' Baroque, a chamber orchestra playing on period instruments. The vocal soloists were drawn from the choir. As is increasingly common once more in performances of Israel in Egypt, the original first part of the oratorio – which started life as standalone funeral ode for Queen Caroline called The Ways of Zion do Mourn and was later abandoned by Handel for performances – was omitted. This is unfortunate because The Ways of Zion do Mourn contains some stirring and finely crafted scoring, and was a popular addition to performances of Israel in Egypt at the height of the early music movement in the 1980s and 1990s. A practical consequence of its omission for performance is that the work begins, not with an overture, but with a tenor recitative. At least for the performance at the Abbey the overture from The Ways of Zion do Mourn was played by way of introduction. 

While in the concert reviewed above, the Westminster Cathedral Choir was performing its "core repertoire" – renaissance polyphony that it sings day at Mass and Vespers – the Abbey Choir was singing repertoire that is less "core" to its day to day work. And whereas the Cathedral Choir exploited it familiarity with the repertoire to maximum effect, delivering a nearly flawless and expressively intense performance, the Abbey Choir seemed at times ill at ease with the repertoire. Not in a technical sense – the singing throughout was (as you would expect) of a very high order from choir and soloists alike – but rather an interpretive sense. The oratorio form is almost like sacred opera. In the absence of the overtly dramatic element of the opera form, the orchestra and vocalists become the only media through which the theatre of the work can be exposed. Yet, the abiding impression at the conclusion of the performance was that it had been treated a quasi-liturgical work – a sort of enlarged choral Evensong. This meant that, at the heart of O'Donnell's interpretive approach was attention to detail, precision of execution, and purity of sound. All admirable endeavours, except if this comes at the expense of an overarching dramatic vision for the work.

At times, it sounded choir merely eased out some of its lines, when what was called for was genuine fortissimo singing. "He gave them hailstones for rain" is one example, "Thy right hand, O Lord, is become glorious in power ... " is another. In his interview for BBC Radio 3 – which was recoded prior to the performance but broadcast a few days after it along with the entire concert (available, by the way, for another 9 days as at 9 June 2016) James O'Donnell acknowledged that this oratorio, perhaps more than most, is conducive to dramatic singing to do justice to its cataclysmic subject matter (and, it should be added, Handel's scoring). Yet he specifically made a point that he did not want the choir "to bust a gut for the sake of decibels." Fair enough, but one cannot help but think that this contributed to the situation where at key moments, the choir sang well within itself when it should have been approaching the boundaries of its capabilities. And more importantly, it was sometimes drowned out by the modestly sized period instrument orchestra. Perhaps, on the approach taken by O'Donnell, a solution would have been to augment the choir exceptionally for this performance. Or just have them sing more like they did in "And with the blast of Thy nostrils".

The solos/duets were uniformly well sung, though most pieces were taken at unusually brisk tempi thereby dampening their intensity. Case in point, "Thou shalt bring them in", the penultimate movement before the rousing final choruses proclaim "The Lord shall reign for ever and ever", is conducive to a spacious tempo. The countertenor soloist sang the piece beautifully, showing lovely colour and vocal technique, but it was starved of its intensity by the hurried tempo. Among the highlights was the bass duet "The Lord is a man of war". And the trebles all gave confidently and beautifully delivered solos/duets. 

But Israel in Egypt is heavily weighted in favour of the choruses and hence they must demand the most acute attention. 

For those wishing a vaguely close comparison, here is YouTube video of a recording by Simon Preston conducting the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford (of which he was then Director before later becoming Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey) and the English Chamber Orchestra (playing on modern instruments). Note the different approach to the choral singing by a choir also comprising men and boys, no less steeped in the English choral tradition than the Abbey Choir. Note the superior dramatic realisation of the score. This is my view is the benchmark for performances by cathedral/college choirs. 

All in all, a perfectly respectable performance with no particular technical weaknesses, refined (arguably too refined) choral singing, solid orchestral accompaniment and some notable individual contributions, if , ultimately, an unadventurous realisation of the score.