Magnificat!

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Published: 16th November, 2014

The audience in St Paul’s Cathedral was treated to a wonderful night of choral music inspired by the idea of the Magnificat. Polyphonic Voices and visitors Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir. The choirs performed separately and together and, for the second half, were joined by the Australian Baroque Brass and the Polyphonic Players for a striking performance of Bach’s Magnificat.  It was a night where the pieces chosen celebrated and honoured the Virgin Mary.  Each choir exploited versatile groupings to good effect in the spacious volume that the Cathedral provides.

Voices NZ, under the close direction of Dr Karen Grylls, opened the night with a cappella pieces ranging from Rachmaninoff to contemporary composers of the late 20th century.  They began with Salve Regina by New Zealander, David Childs,  which was a perfect showcase for all sections of the choir.  The strength of the tenor line and the bright, clear soprano section were an immediate attraction.  They captured the imposing opening of “Hail Mary” and later the emotion of “this valley of tears”, ending with extremely moving hypnotic repetitions of the word “Maria”.

Over the five pieces the singing was always clear, capturing well the variety of emotions, dynamics and rhythms.  Impressive building of crescendo and great accentuation were features of the Magnificat by Cesar Alejandro Carillo with some almost jazz rhythms.  This contrasted with the delivery of softer, more flowing lines and sustained block sound of Andrew Baldwin’s Magnificat.

After a tender and quite romantic Bogoroditse of Rachmaninoff, the choir continued with Three Sacred Hymns composed by Russian Alfred Schnittke in 1986.  The three pieces were sung with dramatic force and a good solid underpinning of the low bass line.  It again enabled the choir to show its strengths in each part – lovely flowing lines and the excitement of close harmony and texture.  The final force of the Amen brought their part to a stunning conclusion.  The only drawback here was the shuffling into different formations for each of the three hymns; it was distraction in such a short piece.

Polyphonic Voices followed with works by Thomas Tomkins and Tomas Luis de Victoria representing the Renaissance, and the more contemporary John Taverner and Pawel Lukaszewski.  This too is a very professional and accomplished choir directed by Michael Fulcher. Whilst there were a couple of hesitant entries and the tenor line was a little exposed, they easily handled the complexities of the pieces – for SATB, 10 parts and the three choirs needed for Victoria’s  Magnificat.   Tomkin’s Magnificat contrasted appealing solo voices with tightly interweaving lines for the double choirs, coming together with clear forcefulness by the full choir.

Lukaszewski’s Ave Maria (1992) used the double choir structure to great effect to give added depth to the emotion of the piece dedicated to his mother as it allowed the sound to expand out in the space of the Cathedral.  The last parts were almost “ground bass” in effect where repetition added to the devotional feel of the piece.  In the Taverner “Mother of God, here I stand”, the choir excelled with pianissimo volume and clear lines moving though dissonances to harmony giving a sense of transfiguration, awe and reverence.  Much of this section was accompanied by Christopher Cook on the Chamber Organ.

A very moving conclusion to the first half was the wonder-filled “Det ar en ros utsprungen” using both choirs.  The held humming or ‘ng’ sound surrounded the words sung by smaller groups like petals surrounding the heart.

After interval, Bach’s Magnificat burst forth with thrilling trumpet, timpani and strings leading to the bright entrance of the combined choirs.  They used the E-flat edition which has four interpolations to expand the Christmas message.

Throughout the work, the playing of Australian Baroque Brass and Polyphonic Players was robust and supportive, especially the recorders in “Esurientes”.  The choir was superb, and of great presence with warm moments, as well as decisiveness, control and strength in the more complex contrapuntal parts.  There was a welcome transparency from both the choir and the orchestra in this large Cathedral setting.

Outstanding amongst the soloists was Siobhan Stagg who gave a performance of simplicity and ease with the style. This was through beautifully nuanced singing through all registers.  It was delightful for its clarity, openness of tone and well-articulated runs.  She teamed with the solid performance of the bass, Michael Leighton Jones, for a moving Virga Jesse floruit which was a celebration by Mary and Joseph of the birth of Jesus.  Alto Emma Muir-Smith was slightly overshadowed by the strength of Michael Petruccelli’ s tenor in the “Et misericordia”.  Muir-Smith’s voice is clear and precise, and hopefully she will develop even further as the lack of vibrato was most engaging.  Petruccelli’s time came with the well-sustained bite and attack of “Deposuit potentes”.

Michael Fulcher’s conducting of Virga Jesse floruit maintained a sense of the Bach line where the music flowed articulately, grandly and full of dignity.  This was a moment where in the words of the Dean of the Cathedral, “voices, instruments, music and scripture come together in spirituality”.

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The picture is of conductor Michael Fulcher.

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