wed 19/06/2024

St Martin's Voices, Earis, St Martin-in-the-Fields review - music from the beginning | reviews, news & interviews

St Martin's Voices, Earis, St Martin-in-the-Fields review - music from the beginning

St Martin's Voices, Earis, St Martin-in-the-Fields review - music from the beginning

Young singers explore traditional and more unusual settings of biblical creation narratives

St Martin's Voices, the professional choir at St-Martin-in-the-Fields© Lia Vittone

The concert offering at St-Martin-in-the-Fields has transformed in recent years, under Director of Music Andrew Earis. There is still a decent amount of “Four Season by Candlelight” but this tourist-bait now sits alongside some brilliant programming featuring choirs like Tenebrae, Ex Cathedra and the Monteverdi Choir.

And a fairly recent innovation has been the creation of St Martin’s Voices, a chamber ensemble of young professional singers and who gave this hour-long recital of music about biblical beginnings. The ten-strong choir, under Earis’s avuncular guidance, sang beautifully in some not altogether straightforward repertoire. The choices of piece were successful – with one exception, in my view – and it made for a broadly satisfying sequence.

Rosephanye Powell’s The Word was God set the opening of John’s gospel with an insistent rhythm, setting up antiphony between the upper and lower voices, which built into a riotous polyrhythmic pile-up. There was some mellifluous Lassus and simple Lutheran hymnody in the form of Nikolaus Decius’s Lucis Creator optime. Karin Rehnquist’s Songs from the Earth had an impassive inscrutability, all bare intervals and steady tread. Portraying the contrasts between darkness and light, night and day, the melodies had a folky character, and the returning refrain “Oh do not fear the darkness, it is the home of light” came to have a reassuring quality.

Conductor Andrew EarisArvo Pärt’s Which was the Son of (2000) was my big disappointment. Although billed by Earis (pictured left) as one of his favourite pieces of choral music, this was where I departed from him. The idea for the text is a great one: the recitation from Luke’s gospel of the lineage of Jesus, all the way back to Adam. (Of course, the big paradox is that it only matters tracing Jesus’s lineage through Joseph if Joseph was his father, but the whole Christian thing hinges on Jesus having a much more direct lineage to God.) That aside, Pärt makes a piece which is really neither fish nor fowl. The young Pärt would have set it with uncompromising simplicity, but here he feels the need to have different sections, to vary the texture (including one very ill-advised venture into barbershop quartet territory). In short, it wastes the most valuable aspect of the text – it’s obsessiveness – and the piece ends up a bit of a mess.

The David Lang that followed, though, did everything I wished the Pärt had. evening morning day takes the creation story from Genesis and removes everything but the nouns. It’s a brilliant conceit – lines of text end up as, for example, “heaven / sea-monsters creature waters birds” – and its setting for just five female voices is stark and minimal. It leaves out the musical “connectors” in the same way the text leaves out the verbal ones. It’s one of those pieces in which gradually dawns that this is really all there is going to be, and at that point you surrender to it. The singing was still and unshowy (despite being very exposed) and the result was hypnotic and timeless.

To end there was Aaron Copland’s In the Beginning, which used the same text but this time all of it. Mezzo soloist Helen Stanley gave an authoritative and stentorian performance as the biblical narrator, commanding attention and filling the room, but in her operatic delivery felt slightly divorced from the sound the choir were making. The hieratic structure and monumental chordal writing means In the Beginning doesn’t have the charm of Copland’s ballets, being tonally nearer to his symphonies – but the choir gave a committed reading, especially in the glowing final bars: “and man became a living soul.”

@bernardlhughes

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