Monday, 20 February 2012

Somerset Chamber Choir and Pianist Anita D'Attellis 'Out of the East' - Eastern European masterpieces King's College Chapel Taunton Sunday 19 February

 Two great Somerset musicians
Musical Director of the Somerset Chamber Choir: Graham Caldbeck
Concert Pianist and former resident (now living in Oxfordshire): Anita D'Attellis
Russian music is always popular with British audiences. The intense passion and emotion of Russian composers excites the ear unmistakeably. In Crediton last May the great hymn, "Dear Lord, strengthen the holy orthodox church!" ("Уважаемые Господа, укрепления святой православной церкви!") rang out when Lady Mayoress Natalia Letch invited the St Petersburg 'Ensemble Hermitage' Male Voice Choir to visit the Congregational Church (see Tuesday 17th).

This Sunday afternoon (19th February) a local choir polished up their best Russian (and Finnish and Polish) to sing choral music 'Out of the East'. To add to the Eastern European flavour, pianist Anita D'Attellis played fiery music by Russian, Finnish and Polish composers.

The Choir sang throughout in the original languages. All carefully transliterated by bass Ian Bromelow, in an extemely accessible and informative programme (notes by Graham Caldbeck) compiled and designed by Tenor (and marketing officer) Andrew Coombs. The songs were endlessly fascinating and painted a vivid picture of 'Eastern' culture.

First, Tchaikovsky! From his 'Nine Sacred Pieces' (1885) we heard number seven, "Blessed are those whom thou hast chosen" ("Блаженны те, кого Ты избрал"). Immediately the different voices of the Somerset choir stood out distinctly. The final words, "И Память их в род и род" ("Their rememberance is from generation to generation") rang out in the chapel "род и род!" before the final 'Alleluia' pronounced in a very Russain style, with a final drawn out ooh-eeh-aah. A very impressive sound.

Throughout the concert, the quality never faultered. Musical Director, Graham Caldbeck, kept everything very firmly under control, and the singers, in four ranks - sopranos, altos, tenors and basses - gave every song superp energy and precision.

There was more Tchaikovsky ('The Liturgy of St John Chrisostom' and ''Crown of Roses') ending with the 'Cherubic Hymn' for 'Chrisostom' - a low brooding piece with that trademark Russian bass. "житейское отложим попечение
" ("Lay aside everyday cares") repeated perfectly time after time before the "аминь" (Amen), which is not the end. After more rejoicing in the prospect of a life to come the song ends with those long deep-felt Alleluias.

Then Graham left the stage, and his rostrum was removed too, to make way for the afternoon's soloist - Anita D'Attellis.

 Anita D'Attellis plays the King's College Yamaha:
Chopin, Rachmaninov, Rautavaara & Łukaszewski!

Anita started with a well known Polish composer, who worked in exile in Paris in the nineteenth century, Fredyryc Chopin. Everything Anita did was light, gentle and fluid. In the Waltz in C the headlong rushes up the scale were soft as down, ending in the subtlest top note. Every accented note was precise, but gentle.

Rachmaninov's Prelude in G was full of rippling quavers like the story of Undine. There was a lot more power, but still that gentle touch. The forays into the top range of the instrument were magical.

Then, to Finland, for Einojuhani Rautavaara's Sonata No 2, and "The Fire Sermon". From predictable classical progression, Anita switched to crashing chaos. Still that magical precision - now in the bass - interspersed with more watery ripples. Fairy footsteps gave way to the thunderous trampling of great ogres - ending in a mighty crunch as Anita held down all the bass keys with both hands. Somehow, each time Anita raised that silver styletto and released the sustain pedal, the sound continued to ring out like a cry from another world. Terrifying, mesmerising - and always elegantly controlled. Perfect.

With Graham and his rostrum reinstated, the choir sang the Cherubic Hymn from another 'Liturgy of St John Chrisostom' - this time by another Russian Composer, Alexander Gretchaninov. From a soft bass murmer the music was lovingly built. Cares having been laid aside (again) there was a long relaxed pause before 'Amen', very very low. The benediction was brief before building again to a great controlled "All el OOH - EEH - YAH!".

Stravinsky's "Отец наш" (The Lord's Prayer - "Father of us") was familiar in its intonation and rhythm, with the same sincerity, but strangely alien. Surprisingly the last word was missing - no "Amen"! His "Ave Marie" was in Latin, sliding gracefully up and down the scale before ending with an insistent request for Mary to pray for us "in hora mortis nostri" - in the hour of our death. Then after a plaintive pause - "Amen"!

Then, suddenly, we were in the Ukraine. From Kiev we heard the traditional "Kontakion" (and "Ikos") For the Departed. This piece of Orthodox liturgy is familiar to us in Devon - we heard it in all its glory at Buckfast Abbey at the end of last year (15th October). Equally beautiful in the King's College Chapel, the grief and hope of the Kontakion build directly to the Funeral Ikos. Strangely, instead of dust returning to dust we had "деньги" - meaning "money". Intriguing. The graceful lament ended with increasingly firm Alleluias of course!

And to finish the first half, a piece expounding one word - "Amen". The Polish composer, Henryk Górecki, starts the piece with the simple word, short and precise. Then the choir swells the sound to an alien wail, crying in desolation. A word with a wealth of meaning, imporing and demanding . . . commanding . . . angry. Then - silence, broken after an almost unbearable pause by the choir resuming softly and descending to perfect peace, before suddenly swelling to another loud repeat which tails off in a high ethereal note. What an ending!

Anita D'Attellis and Graham Caldbeck
with the Somerset Chamber Choir
in King's College Chapel, Taunton
During the interval one thing struck the eye - the pelicans. (The college emblem, no doubt). In a, now unfamiliar, but once popular myth the pelican pierces her own breast with her bill to feed her young on blood, in a parallel of the passion. As the blood of the pelican sustains its chicks, in Christian belief the blood of Jesus sustains mankind:

"O loving Pelican! O Jesu Lord!

Unclean I am but cleanse me in thy Blood of which a single drop,
for sinners spilt,
can purge the entire world from all its guilt."   (Thomas Aquinas)

Underneath the image Paul's exhortation to the Christians of Corinth:

"Vigilante state in fide viriliter agite et confortamini"
("Be on your guard, stand firm in faith; be courageous; be strong")

is paraphrased:

"Fortis et Fidelis" - "Strength and Faith"

An emotive image, and there was more emotive music to come.

For Rachmaninov's version of "Cherubic Hymn" from "St John Chrisostom", a sea of yellow music books appeared. The singers voices descend stepwise to the exhaltation of the "life-creating trinity", and then descend further to "Amen". The final Alleluias are soft and light, not drawn out at all. A low bass sustain continues beneath.

"Блажен муж" ("Blessed is the Man") from Rachmaninov's "1915 Vespers". Each line is linked to the next by that haunting "Alliluia", but each time it is different. Sometimes soft, sometimes strident, in a strange repeating pattern. There is one more after the final "Amen", followed by "слава Тебе, Боже!" - "Glory be to Thee, O god!".

Alfred Schnittke's "Concerto for Mixed Chorus" prays that the singing may become healing. Above the words a high soprano voice maintains a single note. There was a soloist listed for this song - Rebecca Elderton - but it was not clear whether this was her. Each "Amen" at the end split into a deep bass rumble and high soprano, lovely every time.

Pawel Lukaszewski's "Stadium" was fired at the audience in hectic bursts. The rhythm initially seemed harsh, but became increasingly pleasing. A softer more conventional passage gave way to wild gambolling around the scale. A bass rumble like Mussorgsky's 'Gnomus' finally gave way to one last triumphant chord.

Anita D'Attellis returned to the Yamaha grand piano for one more Chopin piece, "Polonaise in A flat". This too was a gallop, but in a more classical style. The 'heroic' theme was very familiar. Every phrase was polished, and played as Chopin intended - with fire! The big chords were very definite, like marching soldiers, with a war-like song slowly overlaid. Peace intervenes, but in the end a very Russian career up the keyboard ended in intense descending chords. Perfect again.

Anita agreed to play an encore - a very gentle piece with the softest highest trills yet. Familiar sounding, but not a commonly heard piece, this was Chopin's posthumously published "Nocturne in C sharp minor".

Graham Caldbeck then took us to Estonia and Arvo Pärt's "Ave Maria", now in Russian - "богородице дево,
радуйся". High and playful with an insistant rhythm and sudden fanfares of sound, this ended with the increasingly familiar repeated words "Яко Спаса родила еси душ наших", "Thou hast borne the Saviour of our Souls" fading away to the final " - shick" of "душ наших".

Now we moved to even more unfamiliar territory. Einojuhani Rautavaara's Finnish "Ehtoohymni" ("Evening Hymn"). Slightly more understandable to English speakers, this starts with a soprano chorus of "Jeesus Kristus", before the basses take things down step by step in Suomi to the deep, deep "Isää, Poikaa ja Pyhää Henkeä" ("Father, Son and Holy Ghost"). The basses really gave it everything.

Suddenly we were in the slightly more familiar territory of Latin again and the Advent antiphon for 20th December - "O Oriens" addressing Jesus as the morning star ("Out of the East"). (We heard all eight antiphons in Latin at Buckfast Abbey on 3rd December last year.) Each syllable was fragmented and infinitely subdivided into different notes, becoming incresingly serious as it implores the morning star to shine on those "in umbra mortis" ("in the shadow of death"). Each repeat was more complex, concluding with the opening words "O Oriens".

Finally the most obscure piece of the concert - and the most restful. "Angelis suis Deus mandavit de te" ("God will give his angels charge over you"), by the Lithuanian composer Vytautas Miškinis, opens with an impassioned cry which leads into the jazz rhythm of a spiritual. The voices get softer and croon as in a lullaby - Farewell!

      Time for just one encore . . .
Богородице Дево, радуйся!

After the applause of the audience died down, Graham explained that the last was not so obscure after all. On Sunday 12 February the BBC's 'Choral Evensong', at St Alban's Church in Holborn, had included Miškinis' 'Time is Endless'. Fired by the challenge Graham and the Somerset Chamber Choir had to try his music too - to wonderful effect!

As an encore we had a now familiar theme one more time, "
Богородице Дево, радуйся" ("Ave Maria"). This time it was taken from Rachmaninov's "1915 Vespers". In Graham's own words "It's the same, but it takes longer." This version was certainly slower, whispered and leisurely. The basses and sopranos have a chance to weave in and out of each other's sound before the last searing cry of "Яко Спаса родила еси душ наших" ("Thou hast borne the Saviour of our Souls").

Musical Director Graham Caldbeck 
after his glorious concert "Out of the East"
Relaxing with friends 
- and a bottle of tanglefoot!
Lin Winstone 
Chairman of Somerset Chamber Choir
and Friends Scheme Manager
toasts the days achievements 
and reminds us all of the next big event
J S Bach's "Nun danket alle Gott"
 C P E Bach's "Magnificat"
and Mozart's "Mass in C minor"
 at Wells Cathedral
Saturday 28 July 7pm

Many thanks to all involved. A glorious concert of exotic and unfamiliar music, sung gloriously. Well done to Musical Director Graham Caldbeck, and to all the singers. Special thanks to Anita D'Attellis for coming from Henley on Thames to play the piano so beautifully. With a little persuasion, she might come to Devon some day . . .

Somerset Chamber Choir are already preparing for their next concert which will be at Wells Cathedral.

Somerset Chamber Choir

Wells Cathedral Somerset
Saturday 28 July 7pm
J S Bach: Nun danket alle Gott
CPE Bach: Magnificat
W A Mozart: Mass in C Minor
Box Office: Taunton Tourist Info
01823 336344

Here in Devon the Antiphon Choir will be reconvened

for more choral music at Buckfast Abbey at the beginning of March

Antiphon Choir
Buckfast Abbey
Saturday 3 March 7.15pm
Lenten Prose - Plainsong Men Only
Lamentations of Jeremiah I - Thomas Tallis
Crucifixus for 8 voices - Antonio Lotti
Miserere mei - Allegri
Lamentations - Men's voices by Osbert Parsley
O vos omnes - Pablo Casals
The Reproaches - John Sanders
When I survey the wondrous cross - Edgar Day
Te lucis ante terminum - Thomas Tallis
Musical Director: Matthew Cann
Tickets: £15 (£10 in advance)
from Buckfast Abbey Shop
Matthew Cann:
or SAE to: 38 Miller Way, Exminster EX6 8TH
David Acres: 01392 490398

In Somerset, Laurence Blyth will direct the Wellington Choral Society in the St John Passion (previously performed with the Exmouth Choral Society Saturday 4th february) In St John's Church 24th March.

Music Director:
Laurence Blyth

Wellington Choral Society
Church of St John the Baptist Wellington
Saturday 24 March 7.30pm
Music Director: Laurence Blyth
Tickets: £10 (child/student £3)
Box Office  01823 400964 (from mid-Feb)

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