Cantandum’s concert A Spotless Rose: Music for the Virgin Mary on Tuesday night featured one of Palestrina’s last great Mass settings Missa Assumpta est Maria, whose movements were interspersed with other Marian motets from Palestrina’s contemporary polyphonists, along with latter-day anthems by Britten, Bruckner, Poulenc, Howells, Joubert and Górecki.
Breaking up the movements of the Mass worked well; so often, concert performances of such works can become indigestible chunks, presented in a way that would never have been the case when they were part of the liturgy.
The evening was very much a curate’s egg. The pieces that received the best performances were the modern works containing more homophonic material – Howells’ Christmas evergreen A spotless rose and Bruckner’s magnificently chromatic Ave Maria were given excellent accounts, and the choir tackled Poulenc’s harmonically challenging Salve Regina, Britten’s adolescent Hymn to the Virgin and Joubert’s There is no rose with confident intensity. To finish the second half, the choir opted for Górecki’s interminable Totus tuus, a piece of inexplicable popularity, whose simple structure demands, for its effect, an absolute uniformity of voices, such that all the notes, vowels and consonants should line up with military precision; alas, this fell short of the mark in places, extinguishing any sparkle of which the piece might be capable.
The polyphonic pieces clearly presented more challenge. Using a smaller group of eight voices for the opening of each half (Palestrina’s motet Assumpta est Maria – on whose themes the Mass is based – and Victoria’s Sancte Maria succure miseris) was a brave move, and by and large was pulled off with aplomb, although sometimes there was some unevenness in vocal quality across the parts.
Of the Mass movements, the Sanctus, Gloria and Agnus Dei stood out, and felt as though they had received the most rehearsal. The full glory of polyphonic music of the Renaissance is heard when the singers inhabit the structure – feeling the lines as they move against each other, so that dynamics and speed occur organically – and this only comes with a thorough knowledge of the work and an understanding of the form; there were several occasions (notably during the Credo and the semi-chorus Benedictus and Christe eleison) where it was clear that some of the singers were not in this zone, and were heavily dependent on beat and book – there were times when even this communication was in danger of breaking down.
Of the other pieces of polyphony, Eccard’s Candlemas standard from The Church Anthem Book When to the temple Mary went received the best performance, again, perhaps, because of its largely homophonic structure. Victoria’s Ave Regina caelorum, despite its uncertain start, blossomed into a generally good performance, although the attack of the antiphonal sections lacked crispness, a flaw that was also noticeable in Ne timeas Maria by the same composer.
The choir has a good blend, and produces a stirring sound when all 27 voices are singing together, but the complex demands of the Renaissance polyphony made, on occasion, for less uniformity of sound, and several rabbit-in-the-headlights moments; the lesson for future concerts would be that a greater familiarity with the material will make for a better communication with the audience.