Two works, one extrovert, the other largely restrained, made up a programme from two composers who share little if any common ground. Yet hidden behind the stylistic separateness of Leonard Bernstein and Pēteris Vasks was a loosely shared connection with the arrival of Spring, and timely it was too.

Coro del Teatro La Fenice in Teatro Malibran
© Teatro La Fenice

It began with the vision of nature awakening that is Plainscapes (2002), a work for solo cello, violin and mixed wordless chorus inspired by the flat, open plains of Vasks’ native Latvia. Much of the time this darkness-to-light traversal comprises long, ‘horizon-stretching’ multi-layered vocal lines supported by scale-like passages for cello and triadic violin figurations bearing kinship with Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli techniques. In this performance its sixteen or so minutes variously intrigued, mesmerised and eventually took wing as the Covid-compliant singers of the Coro del Teatro La Fenice floated and soared towards an ecstatic climax. Apart from one or two uncertain entries near the beginning, the 30 or so masked singers drawn from the main body of the opera chorus gave a satisfying account, their director Claudio Marino Moretti not always able to secure transparency of detail, but birdsong imitation was highly effective in the somewhat dry acoustic of Venice’s Teatro Malibran. Roberto Baraldi (violin) and Francesco Ferrarini (cello) underpinned the chorus with tireless clarity and poise, their interlocking lines and portamenti finely judged.

Claudio Marino Moretti, Roberto Baraldi and Francesco Ferrarini
© Teatro La Fenice

Bernstein's Chichester Psalms formed a striking juxtaposition to the minimalist character of Vasks, its assemblage of biblical texts vividly set in the composer’s reduced version for choir, organ, percussion and harp. Commissioned by the Very Reverend Walter Hussey to write a choral work for the 1965 Southern Cathedral’s Festival (that year in Chichester), Bernstein once described this work as “the most accessible, B flat major-ish tonal piece I’ve ever written”. But it’s the sheer exuberance of the psalm setting that impresses; the dancing gestures of Psalm 100 and the dramatic energy of Psalm 2 (Why do the nations rage) for which the composer creates particular challenges. One of these is for a conductor to find the right tempo – too safe lessens the impact of those sprung rhythms of the Jubilate Deo and too fast brings obvious thrills, but danger. Under the circumstances (social distancing etc) Moretti got it just about right, although in an ideal world a fractionally faster tempo would have more readily conveyed exuberance for such a celebratory psalm. Perhaps an ideal performance is where you can throw caution to the wind!

Italian countertenor Carlo Vistoli brought bright focus to Psalm 23, tenderness in short supply for its comforting words, but fully equal to its languor. The only disappointment was the somewhat earthbound Psalm 131, never quite flowing in the manner it should and devoid of forward momentum in its sanctity. A pity too those unaccompanied closing bars, which lost pitch and made for an awkward pick up with the instrumental ensemble, Ulisse Trabacchin (organ), Eva Perfetti (harp) and Paolo Bertoldo (percussion). Throughout this short event they provided incisive and colourful support in their varied contributions. 

This performance was reviewed from the Teatro La Fenice live video stream