Middle C – Sounds and Sweet Airs: Songs of Shakespeare Review

Middle C Review

Festival presents Shakespeare songs from two choirs in admirable literary and musical contexts

New Zealand Youth Choir and Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir, conducted by David Squire and Karen Grylls

Wesley Church, Wellington

Tuesday, 25 February 2014, 6.30pm

An attractive programme and renowned performers had Wesley Church pretty full, including many people sitting in the gallery; this, despite the hefty prices for a concert lasting one hour and ten minutes ($58, $38 child, $53 Friend of the Festival).

The Youth Choir comprised 50 voices, and Voices New Zealand 16, with the result that at full stretch the combined choirs were very resonant in the wooden church. A delightful feature was that members of the choirs read the Shakespeare texts prior to each group of songs. This helped the audience to follow the songs (although the sung words were always projected with great clarity), and to grasp the meanings and nuances before listening to the musical settings; they were read with care and expression. It was gratifying to have the lights on in the church, so that the audience could read the excellent programme notes that gave the titles of the plays from which the songs came, and a few lines about the context of each song.

After the first reading, we heard Caliban’s Song from The Tempest, set by prolific New Zealand choral composer David Hamilton, who was present. This was sung by both choirs, with David Squire conducting. It began with half the choir intoning, while the other half spoke the words in loud whispers. When all sang, a magnificent sound emerged, with skilled, confident production and lovely variation of tone. It was a very evocative setting. Blend, balance and intonation were virtually impeccable.

Following this, the Youth Choir sang three songs set by Vaughan Williams: ‘Full fathom five’, ‘The cloud-capp’d towers’ and ‘Over hill, over dale’. I am very familiar with these supremely beautiful settings, having a recording (yes, an LP) of Swingle II singing them. The accuracy, shaded dynamics and sensitivity to the words was almost as good from the Youth Choir – quite an achievement, given the group’s much larger size. All three songs demonstrated Vaughan Williams’s capture of the music of the words. He did not endeavour to surpass Shakespeare’s wonderful words, but rather to illustrate them.

The same composer’s ‘Willow Song’ from Othello featured fine, controlled legato singing. The simple setting was appropriately sad in tone. The second setting of the same words, by David Hamilton, saw the choir reorganised into two choirs. This more ornate setting was in a minor tonality, and full of feeling.

Jakko Mäntyjärvi (b.1963) (Wikipedia says ‘Jaakko’) is a Finnish composer, choral singer and conductor. His Shakespeare songs are some of the most evocative in the repertoire: ‘Come away Death’ (Twelfth Night), ‘Lullaby’ (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), ‘Double, double, toil and trouble’ (Macbeth; described in the programme note as ‘The three witches’ Mediaeval cookery programme’) and ‘Full Fathom Five’ (The Tempest). These were sung by Voices New Zealand, under Karen Grylls.

The first was a very interesting and descriptive piece. Fastidiously observed crescendos and decrescendos were a feature. ‘Lullaby’ (the one beginning ‘You spotted snakes with double tongues’, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) was more innovative, but like Vaughan Williams, Mäntyjärvi always put the music at the service of the words, not the other way round. In ‘Double, double, toil and trouble’ some of the words were recited in witch-like voices. ‘Full fathom five’ sounded to be difficult, but it was a beautiful, effective setting, with gorgeous bass notes, like bells sounding deep in the sea.

The same words were set by Richard Rodney Bennett; this gave the most contemporary sound in the programme so far, and was preceded by a single note on a bell. The bell was echoed in the voices by resonant ‘dongs’, of superb timbre.

A second English composer who died recently was John Tavener. His ‘Fear no more’ from Cymbeline was aptly described in the programme notes as ‘searing and ecstatic with… dissonant harmonies and longheld chords’. Magnificent forte and piano contrasts illuminated the marvellous text. Gerald Finzi’s wonderful setting is familiar, but here and elsewhere the inexhaustible impact of Shakespeare’s words has inspired another worthy setting.

The Youth Choir rejoined Voices on the platform for five songs by Matthew Harris (b.1956), a highly productive American choral composer. The first, ‘Tell me where is fancy bred’ (Merchant of Venice) was given a very straightforward setting; it demonstrated the excellent balance and dynamics of the singers. ‘I shall no more to sea’ (The Tempest) and ‘When that I was and a little tiny boy’ (Twelfth Night) revealed the attractiveness of the settings, and also the skill of the choir with all members not only pronouncing vowels in the same way, but consonants also. The latter song became quite complex and thick in texture.

The fourth song, ‘It was a lover and his lass’ (As You Like It) sounded rather conventional until a key change lifted the action, later reverting to the original key. The final song, ‘When daffodils begin to peer’ (A Winter’s Tale) was written in quite a folksy style – there was even a Kiwi accent on the word ‘to’!

It was interesting to hear a programme of entirely English songs; the performances illustrated Dame Janet Baker’s assertion that English is not a difficult language in which to sing well – at least for English speakers who have been well trained.

The concert ended with two settings of ‘O mistress mine’ (Twelfth Night). Andrew Carter’s was notable for beautiful word-painting and rich, multi-part harmony. Finally, a setting by doyen of British choral conductors, Sir David Willcocks, also rich in word-painting, the placement of the words being even clearer. Interesting modulations ornamented the text.

The entire performance was characterised by captivating finesse, and did honour to Shakespeare. Bravo!