Music review: Cantemus Chamber Choir, Dora Stoutzker Concert Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff
These are troubling times for those of us who cherish classical music and the choral music tradition in this country.
The recent announcement of cuts to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the other BBC orchestras, as well as the slashing of funding for Welsh National Opera, are worrying signs of cultural decline in Wales and the rest of the UK.
The axe of cultural vandalism would have fallen on the world-renowned BBC Singers had it not been for a chorus of protest from influential and highly respected people like Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Sakari Oramo.
The proposal even saw the unprecedented spectacle of The Spectator and The Morning Star uniting in opposition.
Strong voices are needed to resist any attacks on musical culture in Wales and ensure that fine groups like Cantemus Chamber Choir continue to thrive.
The death last month of trailblazing countertenor James Bowman was another blow. Bowman had close ties with the Cardiff-based Cantemus Chamber Choir, performing with them on a number of occasions.
They dedicated this concert, called The Genius of Bach: The Motets, to his memory.
The concert opened with a tender and intimate performance of Komm, Jesu Komm (Come Jesus, come) which was Bach’s only motet without a Biblical text.
Instead, it is a setting of a poem by German poet Paul Thymich which talks about the weariness of life and the soul’s rest in Jesus. It was beautifully realised by the choir with sparkling clarity.
The choir then tackled Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (Praise the Lord, all ye nations) with great flair and vibrancy.
Some scholars have questioned whether Bach wrote this motet, but this joyous performance surely convinced most people in the large audience that it was indeed by the master.
Huw Williams, the choir’s director, ensures that there is nothing strained or forced in their singing. This was certainly the case in their performance of Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (Sing unto the Lord a new song).
It is one of Bach’s most elaborate motets, setting two choirs against one another before joining together for a grand fugue. This was a confident, free-flowing performance that was a joy to listen to.
Following the interval, the choir captured the essential rhythm of Furchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir (Do not be afraid, I am with you). This was a performance of impressive subtlety and charm.
The singers approached Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf (The spirit gives aid to our weakness) and Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest much denn (I will not let you go unless you bless me) with confidence and obvious pleasure.
The singers had enough energy, and certainly enough enthusiasm, to end the concert with a spiritually satisfying performance of Bach’s most ambitious motet Jesu, meine Freude (Jesus, my joy).
Director and singers showed a clear appreciation of how the words drive the rhythm of the music in the eleven sections of the motet, with the even-number sections set to Biblical texts and the odd-number sections on the verses of Johann Frank’s six-verse hymn.
Continuo player Jeffrey Howard accompanied the choir throughout, giving depth and harmonic direction to the performance of these motets which are regarded as among the greatest achievements of choral polyphony.
In her programme note, Wendy Lisney, Chair of Cantemus Chamber Choir, referred to a recent sell-out concert they had given, saying that despite the BBC’s cuts to it classical music budget it proved beyond doubt that “choral music is alive and well in Wales.”
One can only hope that she is right. In any event, I’m sure that if James Bowman was listening to this concert beyond the stars he would have been delighted.
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