The Choir of the Age of Enlightenment has been singing with its parent orchestra for some years now, but Monday night’s concert marked its maiden solo voyage – which proved to be an enjoyable pleasure cruise. The choir’s tone is perhaps a little more full than that of The Sixteen, but this is nothing to hold against it – there was subtlety here and warmth, and a genuinely visible enjoyment of all the items sung, from the strictest polyphony of Clemens non Papa to the English pastoral delights of Edward Bairstow.
As might be expected in their first concert without the orchestra, to demonstrate their versatility, the choir opted to sing choral repertoire more from the cathedral than the concert hall, and the programme, Sacred Songs of Love, was a collection of motets and anthems, most of whose texts were drawn from The Song of Songs.
The early composers were represented by Clemens non Papa’s Ego flos campi, Lassus’s Veni dilecti mi and Victoria’s magnificent six-part Vidi speciosam, all of which were sung with precision and a genuine engagement in the complexities of the polyphony, with the voices of the choir members just distinct enough to highlight individual lines without compromising the blend.
A taste of even earlier music was provided by the short sections of plainsong linking each item. Although they were beautifully sung, and provided unusual introductory material to some of the pieces (the delicious melisma in Alleluia: tota pulchra es, sung by a tenor, provided an apt harbinger for the opening tenor line of the following piece, Walton’s lush 20th-century Set me as a seal), if their function was to aid a seamless transition between pieces, alas they failed, mostly because the audience insisted on applauding each item.
The other slight break in mood was caused by James Burton’s lengthy and unnecessary introduction to James MacMillan’s O bone Jesu. MacMillan’s sacred music needs no introduction, since the composer’s deep devotion to his Catholic faith shines in all of his church settings, and O bone Jesu is no exception. It stands like a cross in a Highland graveyard – unyielding, yet delicately decorated with Celtic motifs, entirely beautiful and unique – the last ethereally high chord of ‘Jesu’ illuminating it like a short burst of wintry sunshine.
MacMillan stands out, though, in this post-minimalist era of church music, in which so many composers become indistinguishable in a smudge of the cluster-chord and the overlapping imitation that are their stock-in-trade, and in a milieu where the second or minor-second intervals held at length in a big echoing building have now become the signifiers of ‘spiritual’. Two members of this compositional genre were represented: Sven-David Sandström and John Barber. Sandström’s Four Songs of Love were the more distinctive of the two sets by dint of the music having a clear melodic pathway and goal (and achieving some nicely ‘gusty’ effects in O north wind, the third of the songs). Barber’s oddly parsed Three Song of Songs, alas, passed by almost completely unnoticed (apart from a short lilting duet in By night) in a directionless miasma of notes.
Stanford’s evergreen Beati quorum via, however, provided a perfect demonstration of how note-clusters can be used to breathe motion and direction into a piece, and along with the other early-20th-century cathedral classics – Bairstow’s I sat down under his shadow, and the two William Harris double-choir anthems Faire is the heaven and Bring us, O Lord God – provided a warm bath of unctuous harmony to wallow in, albeit that a little more flexibility with the tempi might have assured a more luxurious linger.