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Sacred Music for a Sacred Space, 2012

St. Paul’s Basilica
04/06/2012 -  
Frank Martin: Mass for Double Choir
Healey Willan: How they so softly rest (*)
Henry Purcell: Hear my prayer, O Lord (*)
Knut Nystedt: O Crux (*)
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Mass in G minor
Cristobal Morales: Parce mihi Domine

Natalie Mahon (Soprano), Claudia Lemcke (Alto), Paul Zaidé (Tenor), Kevin Sean Pook (Baritone), John Johnson (Saxophone)
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Toronto Mendelssohn Singers, Noel Edison (Conductor), Matthew Otto (*) (Associate Conductor)

St. Paul’s Basilica (© Dan Cardoso)

Just as in 2011, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presented a varied program of sacred music, all a capella, at St. Paul’s Basilica.

The concert gave an opportunity to compare two masses composed at the same time (1921/22) by two non-Catholic composers both hearkening back to traditional approaches.

The Swiss Protestant Frank Martin did not release his Mass for Double Choir until 1963, some 40 years after its composition, stating that he hadn’t felt it worthy. It certainly sounded wonderful sung from the church’s choir loft by the Mendelssohn Singers, the choir’s 70-voice core group. The impeccably tuned opening phrases floated from on high - exactly the magical effect the combination of music and architecture is designed to deliver.

English agnostic Ralph Vaughan Williams composed his Mass in G minor (also for double choir) for liturgical use in London’s Roman Catholic Cathedral (Westminster Cathedral). It falls into the composer’s distinctive “pastoral” category of works, although at the same time it conjures up sacred works of centuries past. The work is nicely punctuated by solo passages assigned to four choir members. Soprano Natalie Mahon stood out with her “white” (i.e., vibrato-less) voice which is so effective in such repertoire.

To sum up, the Martin piece comes across as more intricate than the Vaughan Williams, while the Englishman’s work has a warmer sound. Mind you, the latter work was performed by the large choir (around 120 voices) placed in the church's chancel, so closer to the audience.

Between the two large works the choir performed three shorter pieces while placed in a 360-degree circle around the audience, with associate conductor Matthew Otto, a young man quickly amassing an impressive CV, given the challenge of keeping the broadly dispersed group together.

How they so softly rest is one of many works commissioned by the TMC from Healey Willan. It was composed in memory of choir members who had died in World War I - and was composed in 1917 while the war still raged. If anything it is an understated expression of grief and solace.

The choir then gave us the soaring arc of Henry Purcell’s Hear my prayer, O Lord from the 1680s. In contrast, Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt’s O crux, composed in 1978, combines mysticism with a weighty intensity.

One observation on the choir’s approach to possibly the thorniest pronunciation problem for singers in groups (and solo), namely the letter “s”. To avoid excessive sibilance the dangerous letter is almost erased, so, for example, the word “sanctus” sounds more like “anctu”.

The program closed with the 16th-century Spanish composer Cristobal Morales’ Parce mihi Domine (“Spare me, Lord”), with saxophone improvisation provided by John Johnson. This piece received the same treatment on the landmark CD Officium by The Hilliard Ensemble with saxophonist Jan Garbarek. The choir gave the piece a wonderfully intense performance while the soloist moved about the church, thus sometimes distant from where one sat and sometimes up close. I found the distant position worked best - for one thing, thus not challenging the choir, but also for creating a plaintive, atavistic effect. It went over very well with the audience.

Michael Johnon



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