The Holst Singers, Temple Church, 28 January 2006

Last night at the surprisingly well-hidden Temple Church, secreted in the passageways of establishment off Fleet Street, the Holst Singers, conducted by Stephen Layton, gave ample evidence of their claim to be one of Britain’s foremost choirs. It has been a while since I last went to an all-choral concert, and a long time too since I last enjoyed a concert as consistently as this.

The principal focus of the programme, as I highlighted in my preview a week or so ago, was the 37 year-old Polish composer Paweł Łukaszewski, and although space was found for four appearances of his music it was only one of a number of themes covered in the evening.

The dominant work of the evening was Łukaszewski’s Mass, a UK première, here given in its version for chorus and organ. This was divided into two (Kyrie, Gloria and Offertorium, and Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Ite missa est), forming substantial centres for each half of the concert. The significance attached to this work was highlighted by the choir’s procession each time from the Round end of the church, where the other works were all sung, to the Altar; after each half of the Mass, they would process back to the Round. Each of these four transitions was accompanied by the organ, superbly played by William Whitehead. On one occasion this organ music formed part of Łukaszewski’s Mass; the other three were Messiaen. Any sense, however, that the concert might be leaning too heavily on the formality of Catholic liturgy was dispelled by the organ’s fourth intervention, ‘Joie et clarté des corps glorieux’ from Messiaen’s Les corps glorieux. The larger organ cycle may represent the abolition of physical boundaries, a highly symbolised meditation on the death of Death, but this movement with its extravagant solo lines is best described, frankly, as be-bop Messiaen. I wasn’t the only person in the church stifling a grin at this point.

As well as Messiaen’s organ music, the other mini-theme of the concert was twentieth-century British choral music, a staple of the Holst Singers’ repertoire, and represented by some fine examples of the genre. The second half opened with Peter Warlock’s The Full Heart, a prime example of that mid-century English choral style that, I think, is some of the most harmonically adventurous music ever written within an essentially conventional melodic, tonal framework. If you’ve read any of my pronouncements on Herbert Howells, you’ll know how highly I rate this kind of thing. The piece achieved a certain notoriety for its difficulties when it was published just after World War I – one conductor claimed his choir needed 36 rehearsals to perfect it. Needless to say, the Holst Singers handled it with aplomb.

Actually, speaking to members of the choir, the really tricky piece of the evening was James MacMillan’s Christus vincit, which closed the first half. Not least among its difficulties is a high, exposed soprano solo, sung beautifully by Nicola Wookey. MacMillan isn’t always the coolest of composers, but I’ve long taken secret pleasure in his music; one of the first contemporary works I learnt well was, naturally, Veni, veni, Emmanuel. His short violin and piano work After the Tryst is one of the most perfect miniatures I know, and there was something of its solid, languorous harmonies and almost independently spiralling melody in sections of Christus vincit.

The other two English works were both carols, by Jonathan Harvey and Jonathan Dove, taken from the lengthy series of new carols commissioned for the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Cambridge. The unveiling of these on a candlelit Christmas Eve afternoon is one of the musical highlights of Christmas, and as a result I’d heard both of these before. I think on a second listening, I prefer the Harvey – typically rich, resonant Harvey – and it easy to understand the appeal to a composer of his spiritual sensibilities of Bishop John V. Taylor’s text:

Should you hear them singing among stars
or whispering secrets of a wiser world,
do not imagine ardent, fledgling children;
they are intelligences old as sunrise….

Their melody strides not from bar to bar,
but, like a painting, hangs there entire,
one chord of limitless communication.

But of course the principal focus of the concert was Łukaszewski, and three of his works were presented: the Mass, Ave Maria, and O Radix Jesse, which opened the concert. This latter is taken from the composer’s Seven Magnificat Antiphons, to be performed in their entirety in the Singers’ 8 April concert. This was much the sort of work I was expecting from Łukaszewski, a thickly-scored, heady blend of harmony, melody, and echoing drones, characteristic of other contemporary Polish choral writing. It is a lovely work and as a result made an intriguing preview for April.

Like the Antiphons, Ave Maria is another early piece by the composer (if 37 year-olds have early works), and was another attractive example of the type, although O Radix Jesse is certainly the more substantial composition. The Mass, however, I found a little disappointing. Having seen Łukaszewski’s strength in writing the sort of choral harmonies that hang like vapour trails, the Mass‘s opening Kyrie presented a more assertive style that relied heavily on open octaves and fifths. These minimal resources were deliberately chosen but this decision did not really convince, and the composer’s most mature work of the evening too often sounded like the work of a less-experienced man. The programming may not have helped – it had to follow ‘Desseins eternelles’, from Messiaen’s La nativité du Seigneur, a rich Christmas pudding of a work. The second half of the Mass was greatly improved, and the Agnus Dei is certainly the finest of its six movements, a successful marriage of the dense harmonic language of O Radix Jesse with the celebratory tone of the Mass as a whole. There was certainly enough here to make me want to hear the whole piece again.

Evident from all three pieces was Łukaszewski’s skill in drawing depth and detail from apparently 2-dimensional material – one absolute stonker of a chord leapt out of nowhere towards the end of the Kyrie – and it is this quality of his music, as well as its frequent beauty, that makes me unreservedly recommend the Holst Singers’ rematch on 8 April.

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