Mystical harmonies abound in Cantata Singers program

January 20, 2013 at 2:58 pm

By David Wright

David Hoose led the Cantata Singers in music of Bruckner, Herbert Howells and Frank Martin Friday night in Cambridge

If “functional harmony” is the kind Bach, Brahms, and the Beatles used to write—clear chords that relate to a home key, or tonic—then David Hoose and the Cantata Singers presented an evening of gloriously dysfunctional harmony Friday night at First Church in Cambridge.

A capella (unaccompanied) choral music to sacred texts by Anton Bruckner, Herbert Howells, and Frank Martin set the church sanctuary vibrating with consonant, even sensuous sounds that steadfastly refused to “come home” harmonically.

It got to the point where a movement could end on a fat, juicy D major chord and still feel as though it was floating in space, unresolved.   Released from the earthbound logic of music theory, these devotional works—two motets, a requiem, and a mass—were free to soar where reason dared not follow.  As a result, Hoose and his 46 singers found themselves “Divining the Incandescent,” as the program’s overall title had it.

Spirituality is a discipline, of course, and one couldn’t help being aware of the subtle virtuosity of this chorus—collectively regulating vibrato, for example, in music that, while inspired by plainchant, was inescapably modern.  (The Requiem by Howells and Martin’s Mass for Double Chorus date from “between the wars,” 1932 and 1922-26 respectively.)

This group’s uniformity of tone across all sections, with no voice standing out, was not taken for granted either.  In choral music, this sensation of the ego submitted to the greater good is an audible metaphor for spiritual practice, and the Cantata Singers consistently evoked it Friday night.

And one should not underestimate the achievement of singers who stay true to pitch for long stretches with no instruments to tune themselves to.  In this concert, a soft note on Hoose’s pitch pipe before the downbeat could blossom into a half hour of complex, ever-shifting harmonies with scarcely a note out of place.

These skills were placed at the service of music that gave voice to many “varieties of religious experience.”  Bruckner’s setting of the devotional poem Pange lingua was a serene andante, moving in steady quarter notes, not so much commenting on the text as providing a gently shifting background for it.  His Christus factus est, on the other hand, was more active and searching; the chorus struggled a bit to keep the intensely chromatic harmonies in tune, and there were some tentative-sounding entrances, but these were minor flaws in a fine performance.

Influenced by English counterpoint of the Tudor period and the pastoral style of his contemporary Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells composed in complex but euphonious harmonies that were like a lush greensward of sound, reserving chromatics for moments of particularly intense expression.

His Requiem, a gathering of prayers and psalms in a contemplative setting, is sometimes considered a first draft of his 1938 masterpiece for chorus and orchestra, Hymnus Paradisi.  Whether for that reason or because of the deeply personal nature of the music, nearly fifty years passed before the composer was persuaded to allow a public performance of the Requiem.

It is hard to imagine Howells being displeased with the sympathetic, committed rendering presented Friday night.  If Cambridge’s First Church was not exactly an English cathedral, still its spaces resonated with the extra harmonic notes, the sixths and the seconds, that the singers set vibrating against the familiar triadic chords.

The solo voices that occasionally emerged—whether to intone a line of a psalm or just to vary the choral texture—had the simplicity and clarity of English boy sopranos, without directly imitating them.

Like seemingly all Swiss composers, Frank Martin wrote music that defies categories of style and genre.  But at least a mass is a mass, and Martin’s Mass for Double Choir, composed in 1922 with its Agnus dei added in 1926, followed the traditional Latin text.

Faced with two choirs in dialogue and a highly contrapuntal texture, Hoose resorted to a baton to hold it all together.  At the same time, there was an almost minimalist quality to Martin’s harmonies, which tended to stay close to a home chord for long periods, even as the incidental dissonances piled up.

There was nothing minimal, however, about the music’s shapely phrases and energetic expression, which could rise to a shout one moment and drop to a tense pianissimo the next.

And, on an evening when music was so often dissociated from text, there were actual flashes of Bach-like text-setting, especially in the Credo, with its fleshy wall of sound on “incarnatus,” the near-silence of the grave on “sepultus,” and the canon that danced a jig on “resurrexit.”

As the work moved into the Sanctus and the Benedictus, the shift of mood was subtle—this is Swiss music, after all—but unmistakable.  High lines harmonized in thirds added a blissful note, and then the setting of “Hosanna in excelsis” rose in ecstatic waves.

Perhaps Martin couldn’t think how to follow such intense expression, and that’s why he waited four years to add the closing Agnus dei, a return to the meditative mood of the opening in smooth lines over anchoring pedal notes, briefly interrupted by a surge of feeling on “miserere.”  In any case, this healing music was worth waiting for.

Martin’s listeners had to wait even longer as, like Howells, he withheld this Mass from public performance for over forty years.  He is quoted (in the program notes by Mary MacDonald) as saying that “the expression of religious sentiments, it seemed to me, ought to remain secret and have nothing to do with public opinion.”

But clearly, it was the opinion of the public on Friday night that David Hoose and his singers had done them a service in rendering this rare music so faithfully.

The next concert by the Cantata Singers will offer works of MacMillan, Merryman, and Schumann at Jordan Hall on March 17.  cantatasingers.org; 617-868-5885.

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