A gorgeous unaccompanied motet by Johannes Brahms sandwiched between two exuberant pieces by Zoltán Kodály celebrating the organ were perfect choices for the exquisite Gothic sanctuary of The Chapel of the Cross. Cantari, the elite ensemble of the larger Voices chorus, was led by Dr. Sue Klausmeyer. The organist was Matthew Michael Brown, who is recognized as one of the leading organist and church musicians of his generation. His career has taken him to a wide variety of venues both here and abroad where he has garnered consistent acclaim.
The opening selection was Zoltán Kodály Missa Brevis. Composed in 1945, as the city of Budapest was being liberated from Nazi occupation, it is a reworking of an earlier entirely instrumental piece. Written while bombing was still going on, it was given a temporary title of Tempore belli (In Time of War). The opening introit and closing postlude were to be played by the solo organist. Cantari’s performance used an alternate choral version of the final movement. It remains an awesome tribute to the power and the beauty of the organ and a winsome choral masterpiece.
As usual, Kodály’s lyrical music was deeply informed by his knowledge of Hungarian folk music. This mass is a favorite of choral singers because of the lilting melodies sprinkled throughout. This performance was impressive on several levels. First was the blend of voices. The choir was seated in the divided chancel so their voices blended in the middle; at times, the sound of the organ and the sound of the choir seemed to come from one source. The sopranos on one side of the chancel and the other voices on the opposite side worked very well, particularly in sections like the lyrical imitative Kyrie. The “Christe eleison” with its high A’s and C needed the sopranos to be separate, and they did a beautiful job in the many places where Kodály has them singing in the upper stratosphere. Another impressive aspect of this performance was the shaping of lines and phrases.
The solos in the “Qui tollis” section by tenor Dale Bailey, alto Cathy Tymann, and baritone David John Hailey were all very well delivered. Tenor Adam Smith sang the intonations before the Gloria and the Credo. The choral singing throughout the Credo was especially effective, with the “Et incarnatus” being deeply moving with descending scales; then followed the exuberant and thrilling “Et resurrexit” with ascending scales. The awesome Sanctus was another section that was especially well-done and effective.
For the Brahms Motet, Op. 29, No. 2, the choir moved down onto the steps of the chancel facing the audience, thus providing a different perspective on the sound of the chorus. Brahms' gift for choral writing has left us a treasure house and rich and ethereal works both sacred and secular.
This setting of text from Psalm 51 begins with a five-part chorale beautifully harmonized and sung with superb balance. The next section is a four-voice fugue beginning with the tenors followed by the altos, sopranos, and basses. Next, there is a three-part passage for male voices followed by a three-part passage for female voices leading to a blending in the five-voice high-spirited final section. The bass section, I thought, was a little unsure, especially through the chromatic passages sprinkled with accidentals, but that may have just been oversensitivity on the part of this old bass who sings no more. The motet, over all, was performed with beautiful singing and outstanding interpretive expression.
The closing piece left no doubt as Kodály pulled out all the stops in his Laudes Organi (Fantasia on a XII Century Sequence). It was his final finished composition and was commissioned by the American Guild of Organists for their 1966 national convention held in Atlanta. The piece opens with a grand organ toccata which eventually subsides to a whisper as the choir enters singing the words “Listen to the course of the pipes.” What a joy it was to hear Brown’s masterful rendition on the Chapel's Kleuker organ, its rich sounds ranging from triumphant celebration to warm and tender meditation. The text calls our attention to many aspects of music and the organ. Of special note is the phrase “Musician! You must behave like a warrior.” The basses here were marvelous, as they were in several other delicious passages. The sopranos got a good workout with some pretty high notes that they were able to manage nicely. The tenors and altos both were strong in fleshing out the full chorus and in bringing the inner voices to the fore when necessary.
Kodály took full advantage of the descriptive language of the text using tone painting for various musical references. There is even a line that makes reference to the inventor of the venerable solfeggio (do re mi fa sol la ti do) approach to learning to sing. The ending was marvelous and memorable with the word “Fiat” (so be it) repeated several times as it faded away. Then the basses began the “Amen” with a sweet melismatic fugal passage. As other voices blended in, the celebration reached a joyous climax.
It was a marvelous concert with well-chosen selections and outstanding musicianship, providing a pleasurable interlude of stirring music.