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A wondrous variety

St. Paul’s Basilica
03/29/2013 -  
Antonio Lotti: Crucifixus for eight voices
William Byrd: Ave Verum Corpus
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli
Pawel Lukaszewski: Ave Maria (*) – Nunc Dimittis (*)
John Tavener: Svyati (*)
Gregorio Allegri: Miserere Mei, Deus
Timothy Corlis: God So Loved the World

John Marshman (Cello), James Bourne (Organ)
The Mendelssohn Singers, Noel Edison (Conductor), Matthew Otto (*) (Associate Conductor)

St. Paul’s Basilica

The 2013 Good Friday concert at St. Paul’s Basilica featured the Mendelssohn Singers, the 70-voice choir formed in 2003 from the ranks of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. As in previous Good Friday concerts, music from various eras was sung (in this case from the 16th to the 21st centuries) and once again the choir used various spaces within the church to wonderful effect.

For the first three numbers the choir sang from the loft at the rear of the church. Thanks to this the opening of the first number, a Crucifixus by the Venetian Antonio Lotti (1667-1740), seemed to melt mysteriously out of the air.

We next heard William Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus, a work published in 1605. It is a straightforward setting of the words for the most part, with some polyphonic interweaving of lines toward the end.

Next up was Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, a work that has been mythologized as a product of divine inspiration and thus representing absolute musical perfection. Palestrina held important musical posts in Rome for over 40 years through ten papacies, during which time he composed over 100 masses. We must remember that this mass, composed in memory of a pope who reigned for just 22 days, was composed over 450 years ago - almost a full 200 years before J. S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor. We cannot escape listening to it with modern ears which is why it comes across as soothingly beautiful but at the same time wanting in expression. We simply expect more drama, for example at Et resurrexit. Of course it wasn’t composed for anything resembling a modern audience but for a small group of men profoundly initiated in the ritual the piece was part of.

The second half of the concert had the choir descend to the main part of the church where, for the first three pieces, they were positioned in the nave. Polish composer Pawel Lukaszewski (born in 1968) has a style that has been described as anti-modern. His Ave Maria, composed at age 24 when he was a still a student, has vocal lines sung to a rocking cadence, interspersed with high voices used in quite a forceful, even edgy, way. His Nunc Dimittis (dating from 2007) has a group of four singers establish a drone sound before the rest of the choir joins in. The vocal lines for whole choir then gradually become more of a meditational monotone.

Matthew Otto gave nicely controlled guidance to these works, as to John Tavener’s Svyati (“Holy one”) composed in 1995. The text, which is much like a kyrie, is in Church Slavonic and is part of the Russian Orthodox funeral service. There is also a part for solo cellist, who is to be placed at some distance from the choir and play in an objective manner - i.e., without tremolo or any such emotive technique. The result is a dialogue, with the cello representing the Ikon of Christ while the choir implores God’s mercy. The choir’s lowest voices have notable parts. The cello by its very nature can’t help but have an emotive aspect to its sound; it certainly sounded beautiful in the church acoustic. The work is thrillingly haunting and melancholy.

(The piece was interrupted for about 15 minutes when an audience member had a medical emergency, collapsing into the centre aisle midway between the conductor and the cellist. After the EMS people had taken him away the piece resumed from where it had been interrupted. All shows must go on.)

The choir then moved to the chancel for the two remaining works. Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere Mei, Deus is the piece that for many exemplifies early church music thanks to its repeated soaring sections which has a soprano or treble voice rising to a high C. The piece was composed around 1638 and performance was restricted to the Sistine Chapel for over 100 years until Wolfgang Mozart, then 14 years old, jotted it down after hearing it twice. Musically it is quite straightforward, with sections of plainchant for men’s voices followed by lines for the large choir, and then on five occasions, lines to be embellished by a smaller group (at this concert just six singers positioned in the loft). It comes as a bit of shock to learn that the five high Cs in the embellished sections are not authentic; embellishments weren’t fully written out so we don’t know exactly what they were (and they would have varied at any rate), but what we hear today is looked askance at - which doesn’t stop it from being widely performed and recorded and enjoyed.

The Allegri work is traditionally performed during Tenebrae, a late-night Holy Week service during which all the church’s candles are gradually extinguished - thus it would provide a fitting end to a concert performance. In this case, though, it was followed by the premiere yet another work that also makes for a fitting conclusion, God so Loved the World, by Timothy Corlis. The commission was for a work for choir and cello (thus a companion piece to Tavener’s Svyati) using the lines from John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Corlis sets these lines at the end of the work following his setting of the seven last words of Christ, a subject other composers have treated, notably Haydn. The “seven last words” are not just words, but the final seven utterances of Christ as reported in the four Gospels. Corlis uses the Latin forms except for the fourth one (“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”) when he uses Aramaic. The 25-minute work is fluent and expressive, with marvelous use of the cello to accompany and emphasize the vocal content. The work deserves to be widely performed.

Noel Edison has headed the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir since 1997 and has brought it to a high level of accomplishment far beyond the aims of its Victorian beginnings back in 1894. These annual Good Friday concerts are an excellent demonstration of the group’s varied achievements.

Looking forward: the Good Friday concert in 2014 will feature works by Maurice Duruflé and Louis Vierne.

Michael Johnson



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