Single Voice Choir – Not for Luther!

There is something slightly different at the next concert in the Sheffield International Concert Season at the City Hall on the 12th of March when the renowned Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment pays a visit.

Bach cannot be called unfamiliar, although with the exception of the Brandenburg Concerto No 2 in the all-Bach affair, the other three works on offer will not be as recognisable: the Sinfonia from Cantata No 42 and two of his four so-called Lutheran Masses.

However, the latter means singing voice involvement, not exactly splashed in publicity for the concert, but four soloists are on duty and will also be the single-voice SATB chorus!

The theory that Bach’s choral music, including in the Passions and B minor Mass, was written for one voice per part (OVPP) was postulated by the American musicologist Joshua Rifkin (of Scott Joplin-fame!) in 1981 and generally met with derision and laughing in the aisles.

Three decades later it can be said to have been accepted as a distinct possibility by Bach scholars and specialists, including John Butt (directing the 12th of March concert), and many illustrious conductors are also recording Bach’s choral works using OVPP in the choruses.

Bach’s Lutheran Masses owe their existence to his huge cantata output and are thought to have been penned around 1738/ 39. Each comprise a setting of the Kyrie and Gloria only and has six ‘movements’, the Gloria been divided into five.

Three movements are always choral: the Kyrie, the opening of the Gloria and its conclusion from Cum sancto Spiritu which book-end three solo arias in between.

Being a Lutheran church musician, Bach wrote very little religious music in Latin and actually titled the four works with the Latin Missa. They attained the name ‘Lutheran Mass’ because the regular use of the Kyrie-Gloria combination in Lutheran liturgy.

The Masses were created almost entirely by using the music of movements from various, earlier church cantatas (all in German) that Bach had written. For the most part, he only altered the music slightly to align it with the Latin words.

In the OAE performances of Mass No 3 and Mass No 4, it is all previous cantata material and in No 3 almost exclusively music from Cantata No 187, first performed in 1726.

Four of the six movements are from it, the cantata’s opening chorus becoming the Mass’s Cum sancto Spiritu finale and, in an occasional change of voice part, the tenor gets the music of soprano’s cantata aria before it.

The Mass No 4 has two movements drawn from Bach’s Reformation Day cantata in 1725 (No 79) and two from Cantata No 179 dating from 1723. The remaining four movements over the two Masses are from four different cantatas.

The concert boasts four excellent soloists in soprano Mary Bevan, American mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle, tenor Thomas Hobbs and baritone Ashley Riches, also the OVPP (SATB) chorus – and a quartet with the potential to make the irresistible opening da capo Gloria in excelsis of Mass No 3 and virtuosic Cum sancto Spiritu of Mass No 4 absolutely spell-binding!


The Beloved – After Hours!

Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus has come up with an innovative idea a week on Saturday, the 20th of February, as it embarks on its 80th anniversary year.

Following a largely Nordic-themed concert, including Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, from The Hallé in the Sheffield International Concert Season, the Phil is offering more music by the Finnish composer at 9.30pm down in the City Hall’s Ballroom.

It is the original (almost!) version of Rakastava and forms part of a sort of vocal epilogue to the Hallé’s concert – conducted by a Finn, Okko Kamu! – along with pieces by a couple of Baltic composers, Arvo Pärt and Ēriks Ešenvalds.

Most people will be familiar with Rakastava (The Beloved, or Lover) from the three-movement orchestral suite the composer cobbled in 1912, the work’s third incarnation!

It was written originally as a cycle of three songs for unaccompanied male voice choir for a singing competition in 1894 when Sibelius was struggling to make his way as a composer.

He subsequently arranged it for unaccompanied mixed choir four years later which became more popular – the version being performed here!

The texts, usually performed without a break, are taken from the first volume of a collection of Finnish folk poetry and depict a man initially yearning for his absent love with a touch of melancholy: ‘Where is my Beloved?’

He descends into tenderness as he points to the path where “my beloved’s steps have trod,” before the work ends with the lovers parting as the music gets ever more sorrowful.

Arvo Pärt is represented by one of the masterpieces employing his self-created tintinnabuli style, the Magnificat setting from 1989. Did you know, by the way, that Pärt has been the most frequently performed living composer in the world for the last five years?

The young Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds, born 1977, is already well on the way as a challenger for the mantle with an extremely busy commission schedule and his choral music performed by choirs on every continent.

Most of his substantial output in a very short time is choral or vocal and between 2011-13 he was a Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge. The most recent recording of his music has come from the Choir of Trinity College!

Two pieces by Ešenvalds are performed by the Phil, Vakars, an eight-part setting from 2006 of Sara Teasdale’s poem Evening – we are told to ‘listen out for the night birds singing!’ – and a seven-part arrangement from 2009 of a Latvian folk song, Lielupe – The River Lielupe!

The event is free, but a ticket is required and you do not need to go to the preceding Hallé concert, although that is the audience the Phil is hoping to attract.

Go on; it’s an attractive proposition and will be done and dusted by 10pm!