Dunedin Consort: How Lonely Sits the City

How Lonely Sits the City
Dunedin Consort, Nicholas Mulroy
Filmed at Greyfriars Kirk
19 November 2020

Scheduled Live thumbnail

One of the finest of the many online concerts available during the Covid calamity comes from the Edinburgh based Dunedin Consort. Under the direction of their new Associate Director, the distinguished tenor Nicholas Mulroy, their programme was built around the rarely heard Orlande de Lassus Lamentatione Hieremiae Prophetae (Quinque vocum), the three sections of the Primi Diei acting as a binder amongst music from the 16th, 20th and 21st centuries. Unlike many such performances, the concert is, commendably, free to watch although donations are clearly not only encouraged but in the current climate, absolutely essential for the future of music making. Full details about the performance and programme notes can be found here and donation can be made here.

Orlande de Lassus: Lamentatione Hieremiae Prophetae (Quinque vocum)
Cecilia McDowall: I know that my redeemer liveth
Lassus: Lamentatione Hieremiae Prophetae
Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade: Vigil I
Rudolf Mauersberger: Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst
Lassus: Lamentatione Hieremiae Prophetae
William Byrd: Ne irascaris Domine – Civitas sancti tui
James MacMillan: Miserere

Although the programme was planned well before the present lockdown, it turned out that it offered “a meditation on the relative emptiness that has characterised our city centres over the past few months”. For many of the singers involved in this programme, the recording was the first time they have sung together since March. It was interesting to hear their spoken responses to the current situation in their commentaries between some of the pieces.

The Lamentations of Jeremiah mourn the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and became an essential part of the Holy Week liturgy. Lamentations by many composers reveal the power of the text in some extraordinarily moving muscial sequences. One curiosity is that the Hebrew numbers that announce each section are also set to music, usually in contrasting style to the following verses, providing a compelling architectural structure to the music. For this concert, the Dunedin Consort performed the three sections of Orlande de Lassus’s rarely heard five-voice setting for the Primi Diei: Maundy Thursday. The three sections (Lectio I-II-III) form a powerful meditation on themes of loneliness and despair associated with seeing the desolated city – an appropiate link to the present day.

Cecilia McDowall‘s I know that my redeemer liveth was commissioned to be performed alongside Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, inspired by the inclusion of Handel’s setting of the text from Messiah at the 1868 premiere of Brahms’s work in Bremen. A sequence of drones forms a structure for melodic lines, with distinctive Scottish ornaments.

Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade‘s Vigil I was commissioned by the Dunedin Consort for this programme with a brief to reflect themes of isolation, community and kindness. She is an Edinburgh-based composer and cellist who after studies in Oxford and London, is now completing a doctorate in Music Composition at Princeton University. Vigil I sets the first poem in the sequence Vigilien from Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1895 Larenopfer and reflects the charged atmosphere of dusk. Ninfea’s beautifully evocative composition uses Rilke’s text in German and English with two of the three SATB quartets taking each language, while the central quartet interweaves both languages. The evolving aural tone-clusters include references to Lutheran chorales. A fascinating pre-concert conversation about the compositional process with Ninfea and conductor Nicholas Mulroy can be seen here.

Rudolf Mauersberger was a German choral conductors and composer active between the two World Wars. In the 1930s he was director of the famous Dresdner Kreuzchor. Although he was compelled to join the Nazi party there is evidence that he tried to limit Nazi ideology among the boys, and continued to perform music by prohibited composers. His elegaic motet Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst was composed during Easter 1945 following the devastating Allied bombing of Dresden. The text is from the Lamentations and their reference to the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, The music combines the Germanic Romantic tradition with occasional references to Medieval organum.

 William Byrd wrote several motets during the 1580s on the theme of the destruction of Jerusalem. Ne irascaris Domine – Civitas sancti tui is an example of his most complex polyphonic writing, the five voices building to a climax at the words Sion, desert facta est as the polyphony gives was to block chords in a moment of unity.

James MacMillan is one of Scotland’s and the UK’s leading living composers. His music draws on a wide range of historical influences, including distinctive Scottish touches, notably in his use of ornamentation. His Miserere is in eight parts, and reveals obvious references to Allegri’s well known version of the same text. The excellent programme notes by Dunedin singer and Head of Artistic Planning & Operations, David Lee, decribes the music as drawing out “the powerful emotions of the psalmist, with increasingly harmonically complex sections that successively explore grief, regret, remorse and — finally — hope . . . MacMillan’s setting presents a deeply spiritual reading that ultimately concludes with redemption and a sense of palpable optimism”.

This is the first time I has seen Nicholas Mulroy conduct. I normally praise him in reviews as a singer, not least as one of the finet Passion Evangelists around. But, viewed from behind rather than the front, he is clearly a conductor to watch out for. His sensitive conducting style is singer-friendly, and responsive to the mood of the moment. The excellent singers of the Dunedin Consort (which included four members of the Dunedin *Bridging the Gap 2020-21 scheme) were:

Rachel Ambrose Evans, Sally Carr*, Claire Evans
Jessica Gillingwater, Lucy Goddard, Hannah Leggatt*
Malcolm Bennett, David Lee, Sam Leggett*,
Timothy Edmundson*, Malachy Frame, Ben McKee*