Festivals provide the ideal opportunity to stage events and during my decades of attendance, certain large-scale events stand out – Ashkenazy’s Beethoven cycle with the Philharmonia Orchestra, Peter Schreier’s traversal of Schubert’s named song cycles as well as pianists Andras Schiff’s traversal of The Well Tempered Clavier and ex-local boy Geoffrey Madge’s series of recitals looking at architecture and counterpoint in music from Bach through Busoni to Sorabji and Ives. In the Festival’s 60th year, there is another momentous event to add to this list – the traversal of all 150 psalms in musical settings which date from the late middle ages to the present. These rich spoils have been judiciously divided between a quartet of the world’s finest chamber choirs, from Europe and Australia. The finale of this 12 concert deal was given over to the urbane Netherlands Chamber Choir and its director Peter Dijkstra, with psalms gathered under the uplifting subject area and title “Celebration of Life”.
Clockwise from top left: The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir, Netherlands Chamber Choir, The Song Company and The Tallis Scholars. Photos © The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir, Kasimir Szekeres, Nick Rutter and Oscar Smith
As with all others in this vast undertaking, the musical presentation was preceded by a talk on contemporary issues and on this occasion, ex-ABC TV presenter, journalist and author Kerry O’Brien officiated. The choice of musical material in this final concert was as eclectic and far ranging as all earlier sets, with a group of composers ranging from the 16th century to our our own time, the weight of the program given over to contemporary settings including a commission for this cycle by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Caroline Shaw. Spread out amongst this rather dense program of works were a few familiar, accessible gems including work by Purcell and Kodály, as well as a witty and ebullient Exultate Deo from Poulenc, an appropriately Latin setting of Psalm 81. As elsewhere in this cycle not only were a variety of compositional styles covered, there was much to discover and enjoy including the tenants of a spectrum of denominations and faiths.
Closing off the cycle, the only non-Psalmic setting was the ethereal, audacious marvel of English Renaissance composition, the 40- part motet, Spem in Alium, which brought together all four choirs who had partaken in this gargantuan task – Netherlands Chamber Choir, The Tallis Scholars, The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir and Australia’s The Song Company.
The four choirs were here divided into groups of 10 which perhaps detracted from the aural experience of this marvellous piece where choristers are normally placed in eight groups of five. However, this did not detract from the excellence, precision and mastery of all singers involved.