Monday, March 3, 2014

Bach-Elgar Sings Vaughan-Williams and Fauré

I went Sunday afternoon, March 2, to hear the Bach-Elgar Choir perform the Vaughan-Williams Mass in G Minor and the Fauré Requiem at Christ Church Cathedral, the Anglican Cathedral on James St. N. in Hamilton.

The last concert that I attended by this choir was of the Rachmaninoff Vespers (an unaccompanied piece) and some High-Renaissance motets with brass. The Rachmaninoff Vespers were, I wrote at the time, too difficult for this choir which was combined, on that occasion, with the Oakville Masterworks Chorus. The choir's grasp of the music was so shaky that a pianist played some of the lines as one might in a rehearsal. The motets, which are far less demanding music, came off better.

This time was a much more enjoyable experience. While the Friday evening performance of the same concert was evidently sparsely attended, this afternoon there was a decent crowd in spite of the John Laing Singers having managed to schedule their concert in Dundas at the same time.

The Vaughan-Williams Mass is scored for a capella double choir and a quartet of soloists. The choristers sat in the stalls at the front of the church, the two choirs facing one another, the soloists (all of whom, but Bud Roach, were Bach-Elgar members) amongst them. It's really a lovely five-movement work with lots of imitative polyphony. The soloists are frequently treated as a semi-choir.

Soprano Heather Plewes had some fine moments in her exposed solo passages and Roach sang nicely his lines and the intonations which precede the movements.

Seating the choir in the stalls was an unfortunate choice. The sound was muddy and one wasn't able to hear the antiphonal dialogue at all, as the lines from both choirs mushed together. Still, there were some nice dynamic contrasts and well-managed transitions between sections and movements.

It wasn't until the second half of the concert, when the choir was on the steps facing the audience, that I could hear them clearly.

The Fauré was accompanied on the cathedral's organ by Michael Bloss. He performed this task as well as I've heard it done in several organ-accompanied performances of this piece. Sadly, this work is to the point of being over-performed in Hamilton. I've heard it three times in the past two years.

Conductor Cann chose tempos, throughout, which were somewhat faster than I am used to but they worked very well. The piece has such beautiful, often modally inspired, harmonies that there's a temptation to take all the movements very slowly, to dwell on the lovely moments. This might be acceptable in a recorded performance but a live one, with a less patient audience, is something else again.

The choir was in tune, which was especially noticeable in some of the aforementioned modal passages and in the frequent full and half-diminished harmonies which lend the work its peculiar flavour. The soprano sound was steady and the unison men's Hosanna in Excelsis was plenty loud and not over-sung.

The soloists were both excellent. Soprano Jennifer Taverner performed tastefully in the Pie Jesu which can be problematic for a grown woman to sing. The piece is a prayer and not at all operatic. Moreover, it was written for a treble (i.e. a boy with an unchanged voice) and sits uncomfortably in the voice for many women. If a conductor decides not to use a mature soprano and a quality treble isn't available, a very young soprano might be a good compromise.

Soprano Jennifer Taverner
Andrew Tees was outstanding in the two movements in which he sang. He's a bass-baritone with a big, dark voice (and an active operatic career) and made a much better impression in this work than the singers I'd heard in other recent performances.

Bass-baritone Andrew Tees
All in all it was a  musically satisfying afternoon. The Bach-Elgar seems to be moving in the right direction. The ticket prices have been reduced and are now in-line with similar organizations in this market. Their next concert, Haydn's Lord Nelson Mass and Bach's cantata Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott, will be performed only once in the cavernous Melrose United Church on Locke St., Saturday, May 24 at 7:30 P.M. This should improve the house and reduce the choir's costs.

No comments:

Post a Comment