A Tale of Two Traditions: Sheppard and Pärt
St John’s, Smith Square. 4 June 2015
The Erebus Ensemble was founded in 2012, with a Bristol base, including being Ensemble-in-Residence at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre. Last year they took second place in the first London International A Cappella Choir Competition in St John’s, Smith Square, being the only British group to reach the final. With the move of their founder and director, Tom Williams, to London, they are re-establishing themselves.
Their lunchtime St John’s, Smith Concert contrasted the music of John Sheppard and Arvo Pärt, the former getting by far the largest slice of the musical cake. After the short and powerful opening Salvator mundi by Thomas Tallis, they launched into one of the most extensive and complex works of the English vocal Renaissance, Sheppard’s monumental Media vita, a 22’ contrapuntal and structural tour de force.
Media vita is the antiphon to the Nunc dimittis sung at Compline on major feast days before Passion Sunday – but in musical terms it far surpasses its liturgical role. The Passiontide text, “In the midst of life we are in death … deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death”, lends itself to the harmonic intensity which Sheppard’s six-voice polyphonic lines produce. The central chanted Nunc dimittis, (here sung by alternating male and female voices, ending with both singing in octaves) is following by three verses with responds in the form of a complex series of repeated sections, starting at different points.
Courtesy of South West Trains, I arrived just too late to be let in to hear these first two pieces, an unfortunate side effect of starting a concert with a very short followed by a very long piece. But I have now been sent a copy of a live recording, so realise how well they were sung. The enormous scale of Media vita make a measured approach essential, with the careful control of volume changes that Tom Williams and The Erebus Ensemble achieved. It was sung at a high pitch, and there is an occasional feeling that the sopranos are straining to reach the top notes, which might have explained their occasional habit of sliding up to reach them. But otherwise this was a masterly performance of an extraordinary piece.
There following Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat, a well-chosen contrast to Sheppard and Tallis and arguably harking back to a musical time before those Tudor composers. One of the finest examples of Pärt’s tintinnabular style of composition, it contrasts solo sections centred on a drone, with multi-voice passages. The timeless quality is punctuated by two enormous crescendos before tight harmonies bring the piece to an end. Tight and intense harmonies were also a feature of the following meditative ‘Lord’s Prayer’ by John Tavener, born 9 years after Pärt. More close-knit textures came in the short Libera nos by Sheppard, its slowly evolving texture unfolding over the slow bass cantus making a fine conclusion to this fascinating and well performed concert.
The UK seems to grow a capella vocal groups on trees, usually weaned in Oxford or Cambridge. It is good to welcome to London a very professional sounding choir from Bristol.