The Abbey choir’s summer concert, Music for the Mass
Our summer concert this year, on Saturday 26 June, took music for the Mass as its theme. It began with plainchant from the retrochoir: an English translation of the Latin hymn Ave verum corpus, into which Russell Mann launched us with a poised treble solo. Our first motet in the Nave, Praise to thee, Lord Jesus the concluding chorus from the St. Matthew Passion by Heinrich Schütz got off to a crisp, well-articulated start and confidence built from there onwards.
The next two pieces, If ye love me and Ave verum corpus, were composed by the two masters of Tudor polyphony, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. Romsey Abbey, with its spacious acoustic, is an ideal setting for music of this period and, singing forward from our usual position in the stalls, we were able to emphasise the dynamic contrasts and devotional atmosphere they created.
The first half concluded with Mozart’s Missa Brevis in D, K194, a generally upbeat setting that is a mainstay of our Eucharist repertoire. For this concert, however, we introduced its opening Kyrie eleison. Preceding it was a chorale prelude, Schmücke dich, played on the nave organ by Jeffrey Williams.
Four younger choristers demonstrated their promise in the two pieces that opened the second half. George O’Brien led the boys in the opening bars of S.S. Wesley’s Wash me throughly and then, in Edward Elgar’s early Ave verum corpus, Joe Taylor sang the first verse with an assurance that belied his years. He was joined in the second verse by Oscar Budd and Callum Cooper. This was followed by Here, O my Lord, I see the face to face, a very effective introit that alternates verses for choir with gentle passages on the organ. It was written by Percy Whitlock during his tenure as organist at St. Stephen’s, Bournemouth, in the 1930s.
An offertoire composed by the doyen of French organ improvisers, Lefébure-Wély, and played on the main organ by Tim Rogerson, provided a welcome break for the choir before it rose to the challenge of Louis Vierne’s Messe solennelle. First, though, the lay clerks performed two contrasting pieces for lower voices, the Agnus Dei from the Mass for three voices by William Byrd and Ubi caritas et amor, the first of a set of four motets based on Gregorian chant by the Twentieth-century French composer, Maurice Duruflé.
The Kyrie of the Messe solennelle opened with an austere sequence of chords played forte on the main organ. The nave organ responded more softly and then the basses entered, followed by the tenors, altos and trebles in canon. This movement gradually built up to a shattering fortissimo climax relished by the choir and both organists.
A jubilant flourish on the main organ launched the choir into the Gloria, a movement full of exciting writing for all participants: full-throated unison singing with syncopated organ interjections; four part writing for tenors and basses; and some quieter, more lyrical solo passages. It finished as it began: in an affirmative, joyful mood.
The Sanctus opened with a memorable walking bass figure on the organ and solos of Sanctus, conjuring up a relaxed and sunny vision of heaven that nevertheless builds towards a more resolute conclusion of Hosannas via a march-like section at Pleni sunt coeli et terra. The Benedictus opens with a series of simple organ chords and lyrical choral writing, then moves through some quietly dissonant harmonies towards the Hosanna material used in the Sanctus.
The Agnus Dei took us to a similar paradise to that sketched by Gabriel Fauré in the final movement of his Requiem. The dynamics were soft virtually throughout, with tender harmonies that verged on the sentimental, suffusing the final bars with a sunset glow that was worlds away from the stormy, anguished mood of the Kyrie.
It was certainly gratifying to sing to a large and appreciative audience on what was a rather damp and dreary evening. The Messe solennelle will be sung at the Eucharist on our final Sunday of the term, 18 July.