Concepts in the performance of music – Mozart by Candlelight, Vivaldi Out of Doors: that sort of thing – can detract from the actual sounds that inspire them. For the opening concert of the 13th Brecon Baroque Festival, artistic director Rachel Podger pitched the idea exactly right, launching its theme of Angels and Archangels with an ethereal quality that was spellbinding. Sure, there was candlelight at a jam-packed Brecon Cathedral, but the tallow wasn’t exclusive, there were no period costumes, and the audience didn’t have to peer through the haze at what was going on.
In the first half, there was plenty going on, with modest choreography seeing the VOCES8 choir processing from the south transept to the high altar after singing Orlando Gibbons’s Drop, Drop, Slow Tears and a Paternosterchant, and after Podger herself, stationed centrally in front of the choir stalls, had opened her contribution with the so-called ‘Guardian Angel’ Passacaglia in G minor for solo violin by Heinrich von Biber, from his Rosary sonatas. This concert’s variation on the festival’s theme was A Guardian Angel, inspired by the engraving on Biber’s score, which consists of fifteen sonatas for violin and continuo, the last being the one played here for solo instrument. Today, the difficulty of its convolutions for a player of Podger’s class can seem a minor consideration. She had, in any case, began what was to be in parts a collaboration between the choir’s eight singers (five male, three female) by adding a beatific and distant loftiness to the choir’s earthly entreaties.
The chant Angelus ad Virginem, a pilgrim’s narrative of the Annunciation, took the choir to the altar’s eastern location, where it also sang Praetorius’s Angelus ad Pastores, in which antiphonal voices represented by two choral blocks tell of more divine intervention, this time of the birth of Jesus. It was down to earth, too, for a human celebration of these lingering sentiments by Podger in Matteis’s Passaggio rotto, Fantasia, and Movimento incognito. The pervading atmosphere of the festival might be Baroque, but adherence to the label was not strict at this concert. Though Gibbons, a Tudor/Jacobean composer, was there at its dawn, Mendelssohn was well beyond its twilight. His chorus of angelic vigilance from the oratorio Elijah, Denn er hat seinen Engeln beföhlen über dir (For He Shall give his Angels Watch over Thee), was also delivered from the far end of the cathedral before the eight walked to the choir stalls to join Podger in Tallis’s O Nata Lux, in which Elijah maintains his presence, here with Moses at the Transfiguration. In this version, Podger’s violin took the high road with soprano Andrea Halsey in unison and in imitation of Jesus’s luminosity, a subject also treated by Schütz in the motet Die Himmel erzählen, a celebration of the glory of God.
By then it was clear that this renowned choir, its female forces complemented by director Barnaby Smith’s alto, had the measure of the venue’s space, despatching from the centre of the cathedral James MacMillan’s Domine non secundum peccata nostra, in which the violin again assumes a celestial role, commentating on and cajoling the choir’s sombre refrain not from a position of superiority but almost with nagging pathos. The anthem, for Ash Wednesday, is a rondo whose words (Psalm 103) arise from extended melismas over the composer’s rudimentary harmonies. The contemporary was also marked by Jonathan Dove’s The Three Kings, a magical setting of Dorothy L. Sayers in which the oldest king’s gift of gold glisters musically in contrast to the first two ballad-like verses. It peaked in a new commission for Podger and VOCES8 from Bristol-born composer Owain Park, who studied with John Rutter at Cambridge and was a senior organ scholar at Trinity. His Antiphon for the Angels merges texts by Hildegard von Bingen and Saint Ambrose and, like the insinuations of the violin into MacMillan’s piece, Podger’s instrument again skirts Park’s evocations of heavenly light, the vocal textures a miracle of mystery and simplicity. Works by Tomkins, Monteverdi and Gabrieli, as well as Dove’s and Park’s, were interspersed with movements from J. S. Bach’s Partita for Flute in A minor transposed by Podger for violin, which weaved its way through Tomkins’s When David Heard as the second voice in a choir reduced to four – five with Podger’s inclusion. The choir’s contributions alternating with the Partita movements didn’t work as well as in items where the two combined, but to describe Podger’s stand-alone Bach explorations as anything less than glowing and thorough would be a travesty.
The festival proper opened before the concert with cathedral choir Evensong.
There’s more music and other events over the weekend, including a Brecon Baroque ‘fringe’. The final concert, Arcangelo Corelli and the Angels, with Podger directing the festival orchestra, is on Monday at Theatr Brycheiniog. It also features the South Powys Youth Orchestra, conducted by Tim Cronin.
More information is available at 01874 611622 and on www.breconbaroquefestival.com
Nigel Jarrett is a writer and critic and a former daily-newspaper journalist. He won the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction and the Templar Shorts Prize. He has published a novel; a poetry collection; and two volumes of stories, the first, Funderland, being praised in the Guardian, Independent, Times and others. His three-story pamphlet,A Gloucester Trilogy, is due soon from Templar Press. He lives in Monmouthshire and swims a lot.