One of Edinburgh's most cherished choirs, The Calton Consort has, in its nine-year history, amassed a loyal following. Under the direction of former Cambridge choral scholar, Jason Orringe, it has given memorable performances of many challenging works, such as Stravinsky's Les Noces, and Schnittke's Choir Concerto.
Their most recent performance featured a single, epic work – Stabat Mater, Op 58 by Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904). The Stabat Mater, like the requiem mass, tends to bring out the best in composers and yet it was the worst of personal circumstances which prompted the work's creation. Grief-stricken at the death of his infant daughter, Josefa, in February 1876, Dvořák began an initial sketch – with piano accompaniment. In a very short time, the deaths of young Ruzena and Otakar left the family childless. Although the work was later orchestrated, The Calton Consort opted for the original version with piano accompaniment – an understandable choice for the intimate setting of Edinburgh's Canongate Kirk, which was also an ideal acoustic for the quartet of vocal soloists.
The text of the Stabat Mater – a contemplation of Mary's torment at the foot of the cross - is a resonant choice for a grieving parent of devout Catholic faith. Variously attributed to Jacopone da Todi and Pope Innocent III, it comprises ten stanzas in trochaic meter, in the rhyming scheme AABCCB.
Dvořák's weighty opening sets the first two stanzas for quartet and chorus using material from the slowly unfolding introduction. The movement features several loud, dramatic pauses on tense, diminished chords and the control and building of tension toward these points was very skilfully handled in this performance. These moments are structurally significant as they reappear transformed in the Amen section of the thematically related closing movement, Quando corpus morietur. The grief-stricken, diminished chords are replaced by major ones. While happiness clearly has not fuelled this choice, we might imagine, as Jason Orringe's excellent programme note suggests, relief brought about by “submission to God's will and trust in the glorious afterlife.”
There are dual demands on the soloists in this work in that they are required both to blend with and stand out from the chorus. All four were very impressive in this regard – Emma Morwood (soprano), Taylor Wilson (mezzo soprano), Adam Magee (tenor) and Nicholas Morris (baritone). The balance and communication in the duo, Fac, ut portem Christi mortem, for soprano and tenor was touching. Nicholas Morris's effortlessly rich lower register brought grace and power to the solo with chorus, Fac, ut ardeat cor meum and Taylor Wilson's controlled drama navigated the Latin/Slavic tension of the Inflammatus et accensus beautifully. The choir was excellent and are to be commended on diction, intonation, balance and musicality.
Fellow travellers on this epic voyage, the audience were warmly enthusiastic in their reception: for the care put into the preparation of the music; for the choir; the soloists; the conductor and, with special affection, for pianist, Andrew Johnston and his sizeable share in this wonderful performance. Not for the first time has a work which was unknown to me become a fast favourite thanks to The Calton Consort. For this I am, once again, very grateful.
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