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A Snow-free Christmas

Nota Bene Choir

Guest Conductor: Peter Walls

Carolyn Mills (harp)Frances Moore (soprano) / Peter Barber (viola) Fiona McCabe (piano)

Saturday 6th December

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St, Wellington


Reviewed by Peter Mechen in Middle C


A couple of nights after being mightily impressed by the singing of the Tudor Consort at a recent “Messiah” I must confess to being even more taken with the performances by Christine Argyle’s wonderful choir Nota Bene at the group’s recent concert “A Snow-Free Christmas”, conducted by Peter Walls, and given at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Wellington on Saturday night (December 6th).


The Hill Street Cathedral has the double virtue of intimate audience/performer proximity within a relatively voluminous space, and we audience members certainly reaped the benefits of both of these characteristics throughout the concert. This sense of involvement in an occasion was underlined at the beginning and end of the opening work, Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, which featured the entrance and exit of the all-female choir singing the traditional Christmas Motet Hodie – such a scalp-tingling effect at the start, those distant voices drawing nearer and nearer, bringing with them all the excitement and expectation of something festive, rich and satisfying.


Britten’s work was just one of the evening’s Christmas offerings, but it was among the most significant – and its performance, I thought, did the music full justice. The women’s voices of Nota Bene may have lacked the sheer animal vitality of some of the boys’ choirs whose performances I’ve heard of this piece on recordings, but the beauty and purity of their singing for conductor Peter Walls made for some breath-catching moments in places. Aided by some of the most atmospheric and diaphanously-woven harp-playing in this piece which I’ve ever heard, from Carolyn Mills, the choir encompassed every aspect of Britten’s wonderfully variegated settings, moving easily and tellingly from the vigour of Wolcum Yole! to the rapt beauty of There is No Rose, and beautifully integrating the use of solo voices with the contrasting amplitude of the larger group in numbers such as Balulalow.


In the previous setting for solo voice and harp, The Yonge Child I was struck during this performance by how Britten manages to conjure up sounds that are at one and the same time so new and yet so old, speaking to our time, yet perfectly in accord with the medieval texts favoured by the composer. Perhaps the choir’s singing of As Dew in Aprille might have had a touch more “swing” in its melodic trajectory at the climax to achieve absolute rapture, but amends were made with the tumbling energies of This Little Babe, and later a fine sense of almost pagan abandonment in those cries of Deo gracias that concluded Adam Lay I-Bounden most satisfactorily.


Carolyn Mills’s incomparably sensitive realisation of the solo harp interlude was followed by a setting which could be described as the work’s dark heart, In Freezing Winter Night, with the choir’s anguished insistence on a repeated high-lying phrase heightened as the music moved up half-a-tone at the climax towards even colder and more forsaken realms, the emotional “squeeze” expertly managed by all. Solace came with lovely duetting in the Spring Carol and a joyous feeling of homecoming in the excitable Adam Lay I-Bounden, before the performers took their leave as they had come.


After the interval, we were treated to some attractive, intriguingly inter-connected Christmas music manifestations – firstly, listening to Michael Praetorius’s seventeenth-century arrangement of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, and then a twentieth-century “take” of the same carol, arranged by Jan Sandström (the “Motorcycle Concerto” man, as Peter Walls gleefully pointed out to us, reminding us of the NZSO’s recent performance of this work with trombonist Christian Lindberg). Untutored, one would be hard put to associate the latter music and composer with the sounds we heard here - the melody and words were exquisitely “floated” by a quartet of voices antiphonally placed in the choir loft over the top of rich choral humming vocalisations from below – an amazingly timeless effect, brought off most beautifully.


Another set of inter-related musical strands were woven by the performers with a performance of the 14th-Century carol Resonet in laudibus (some evocative bare fourths and fifths raising antiquarian goosebumps), then relating the melody to the 17th-Century Lutheran Chorale Joseph Lieber, Joseph mein, both carols associated with the medieval practice of “rocking” a cradle during services. As Brahms used this same melody in the instrumental parts of his Geistliches Wiegenlied, soprano Frances Moore, violist Peter Barber and pianist Fiona McCabe then performed this song with sensitive teamwork and winning and nostalgic atmosphere.


Francois Poulenc’s attractive Quatre motets de Noel challenged the choir in all departments, and enabled them to shine – the opening O Magnum Mysterium demonstrated the voices’ flexibility over a wide dynamic range, and a capacity to deliver exquisite detailing; while the dialogues between shepherds and their questioners engendered a compelling story-sense in musical terms. Only the cruelly high soprano writing in Videntes stellam seemed to bring out the merest hint of strain, though the poise of the singing was unimpaired, with the evocative shifting harmonies of the concluding Hodie making for a rich and satisfying conclusion to the work’s performance.


Next were three traditional carols from France, Italy and Latvia – first, the enchanting French Il est ne le devin enfant captured our sensibilities with its lovely, droll rhythmic carriage, rather like dancing bagpipes or musettes in partnership with voices. Then came a different connection with another recent Wellington concert – the Italian carol Quando nascette Ninno shared the same tune as Handel’s He shall feed his flock from Messiah, this lovely performance gently scintillated by a jig-like tambourine accompaniment. Most distinctive of the three, however, was the Latvian carol Dedziet skalu, putiet guni, whose bell-sonorities and mesmeric rhythms built throughout agglomerations of groups of voices towards an enticing episode of filigree decoration from the sopranos that resonated within a bell-like finish – very nicely brought off!


To conclude the concert we were treated to a New Zealand bracket of carols, featuring the work of Carol Shortis, Andrew Baldwin and Douglas Mews Senior. Carol Shortis, a Philip Neill Memorial prize-winner, is currently studying composition at the New Zealand School of Music, and Andrew Baldwin is composer-in-residence at Wellington’s Cathedral of St Paul. Both Shortis’ I saw a Fair Maiden and Baldwin’s O Magnum Mysterium demonstrated their composers’ skill and experience in writing for voices; while the older, and in some ways more adventurous and confident-sounding work of Douglas Mews Senior, Snow-free Carols, gave us three nicely differentiated Christmas settings from this collection, a Pohutukawa Carol with a tripping 6/8 rhythm, a meditative setting for two soloists and choir of Eileen Duggan’s poem An Imprint of His Little Feet, and a vigorous, coda-like call to action Christmas Come In. An unscheduled, but wholly appropriate encore to the concert was a performance of the original setting of Franz Gruber’s Stille Nacht with guitar accompaniment, the old tune as moving and as evocative as ever, but made even more magically so as the culmination of Nota Bene’s seasonal feast of truly lovely singing.

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