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Concert Review

Boston Cecilia conveys the light in darkness of Kodaly’s “Missa Brevis”

Mon Oct 21, 2019 at 12:09 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

George Case conducted Boston Cecilia Sunday afternoon in Brookline.

George Case conducted Boston Cecilia Sunday at All Saints Parish in Brookline.

As the Soviet army bombed the city of Budapest in the early months of 1945, Zoltán Kodály took refuge in the basement of the Hungarian Royal Opera House. There amid the carnage of war, he began his Missa Brevis, a work that finds a ray of optimism in the face of horrific events.

Conductor George Case led the score as part of Boston Cecilia’s season-opening concert at All Saints Parish in Brookline on Sunday afternoon, in a performance that conveyed a deep sense of poignance and spirituality. Even in times of great tragedy, Kodály’s luminous work suggests, one can always maintain strong faith.

The composer achieves such resolve by casting the mass in a thoroughly lyrical idiom marked by folk-inflected melodies. Less intense than the Psalmus Hungaricus, the Missa Brevis nonetheless balances deftly between joyful exuberance and pastoral serenity. Case’s fluent direction revealed all of the mass’s delicacy and understated affirmation.

The singers of Boston Cecilia responded well to his thoughtful guidance, projecting Kodály’s lines with verve and sensitivity. The opening Kyrie, which Case shaped in a broad tempo, expressed profound mystery. The ensuing Gloria coursed vibrantly, building into a fervent Amen.

Other sections of the work resulted in palpable drama. The Crucifixus,” with its brief, stinging dissonances, brought moments of tension, though some of the lines suffered from unfocused diction. The choir fared better in the smooth-textured Sanctus and Benedictus, which segued into a powerful Osanna in excelsis. Throughout, organist Kevin Neel provided an accompaniment that gently supported each flowing line.

The soloists, drawn from Boston Cecilia’s ranks, sang resplendently in their featured moments. Mezzo-sopranos Julia Kornick and Debbie Watrous, tenors Nathan Salazar and Connor Vigeant, and baritone Benjamin Perry brought dark resonance to the Qui Tollis and Agnus Dei. Singers Carly Dove, Madison Spahn, and Elisabeth Swanson, situated on the left aisle of the sanctuary, complemented the full choir with gleaming phrases in the closing Dona nobis pacem, Kodály’s call for peace.

Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem, which made up the second half of the concert, brought a different sense of consolation.

Composed in 1947, this familiar score offers the same sense of tranquility that Fauré captured in his own Requiem mass. 

Case has a fine feel for Duruflé’s intimate textures, and he led the singers through every crest and curve of the chant-like melodies. The opening Introit, which he shaped with gentle rubato, set the course for a reading marked by subtlety and grace. In the ensuing Kyrie the conductor drew attention to the soft dialogue between sopranos and altos. Yet Case never resorted to micromanaging the details, and instead put the focus on the plush sonic tapestry that Duruflé’s wove from each melodic strand.

For all its charm and soft radiance, the Requiem contains a few passages marked by dynamic heft. In Sunday’s performance, the singers swelled the phrases of the Libera me intensely as the text spoke of God judging the world in fire. And they softened their voices for the final, quiet plea to be saved from eternal judgment. There, Neel offered an expressive organ accompaniment that brought additional solace.

Sunday’s reading also honored the composer’s wish to have the chorus’s tenors and baritones sing the sections of the score usually performed by baritone soloist. With pristine tone and reverential glow, the men of Boston Cecilia offered a silky rendition of the “Tu suscipe pro animabus illis.” Guest mezzo-soprano Vera Savage was equally superb, singing the Pie Jesu with rich tone that conveyed the prayer’s yearning for eternal rest.

The concert’s opener, Geraint Lewis’s The Souls of the Righteous, was just as affecting. Lewis’s score from 1992 casts its gentle melodies within a repetitive structure that recalls the sacred minimalism of John Tavener.

Standing in the aisles surrounding the audience, the singers of Boston Cecilia offered a reading that set the tone for an afternoon marked by a sense of stillness and, ultimately, hope.

George Case will lead Boston Cecilia in “El Espíritu Navideño: The Spirit of Christmas” 8 p.m. December 13 at the Church of the Advent in Boston. bostoncecilia.org; 617-232-4540

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