Un voyage Européen

Saturday 13 November 2010 at 7:45pm
Winchester Cathedral Quire

guest conductor - Simon Bell
organ - Stephen Farr

Tickets £17.50
Concessions £14.50. Children 16 and under £5

We embarked on a European journey for our November concert, which featured the music of four Swiss, French and Hungarian contemporaries.

Frank Martin completed his a cappella mass for double choir in 1926 yet the work did not receive its world premiere until the 1960s. A rich, exciting composition well suited to the acoustic of Winchester Cathedral Quire, guest conductor Simon Bell has paired Martin’s most famous choral work with charming motets by virtuosic French organist Marcel Dupré and the evocative Litanies à la Vierge noire, written by Francis Poulenc following the death of a friend and his pilgrimage to the Black Madonna of Rocamadour

The programme also featured Zoltán Kodály’s 1966 commissioned work, Laudes Organi, and organ music played by former assistant director of music at Winchester, Stephen Farr, now director of music at St Paul’s Church Knightsbridge and Worcester College Oxford.

We were particularly fortunate to have Simon Bell, Assistant Director of Music at Winchester Cathedral, to rehearse and conduct Southern Voices for this concert while our Musical Director, Charles Stewart, was taking a sabbatical term studying at the University of Durham.


European Journey of faith

For its November concert the Winchester-based chamber choir Southern Voices embarked on ‘Un Voyage Européen’ with the choral music of four contemporary composers from Switzerland, France and Hungary.

Frank Martin completed his Mass for unaccompanied double choir in 1926, yet the work did not receive its world premiere until the 1960s. Concise but impassioned right from the opening Kyrie, the piece sounded marvellous in the spacious cathedral acoustic. The singers were disposed antiphonally in the choir stalls and seemed very much at home, as was guest conductor Simon Bell who is assistant director of music at the cathedral. It was hard not to draw comparisons with the definitive 1998 recording by Westminster Cathedral Choir, but Southern Voices acquitted themselves well with only hints of strain in the unusually powerful Benedictus.

Martin’s masterpiece was preceded by the four rarely performed but delightful motets from 1916 by the French organist Marcel Dupré. The singers were superb in O Salutaris and Tantum Ergo, with pure-toned sopranos in the Ave Maria, but slightly weak tenors in the muscular Laudate Dominum. Stephen Farr, also very much at home as a former organist at the cathedral, provided highly effective accompaniments throughout, making the Winchester instrument sound as French as possible.

The 1936 Litanies à la Vierge Noire was written by Francis Poulenc following his pilgrimage to the Black Madonna of Rocamadour. At the time he was deeply traumatised by the death of a friend, an experience which revived his Catholic faith. Scored for three-part female chorus and organ, the piece consists of a repetitive series of prayers to Mary - perhaps more suited to a liturgical or devotional context, but a joy to hear nonetheless. It was the first of a life-long stream of religious choral works from Poulenc, including his better-known Salve Regina which we heard in a performance with strikingly good tuning.

The programme closed with Zoltán Kodály’s 1961 Laudes Organi (In praise of the organ). This certainly required an organist of Farr’s virtuosity and is a showpiece both for the instrument and the voices so often associated with it. Commissioned by the American Guild of Organists, this paean to the ‘king of instruments’ was Kodály’s last major work. The bizarre but colourful 12th century Latin text was found in a Swiss monastery and Kodály ‘paints’ each phrase vividly in musical terms. Towards the end tribute is also paid to the 11th century Italian monk Guido d’Arezzo, who is said to have created musical notation. The work demonstrates the power and tonal variety of a large organ, integrating the chorus in a dazzling variety of ways.

Southern Voices rose to the many challenges of this appealing programme with focused, committed and athletic singing.
Bruce Randall