Montréal’s Chœur Métropolitain, co-directed by François A. Ouimet and Pierre Tourville, presented Dvořák’s Mass in D and two works by Benjamin Britten, the Ceremony of Carols as well as the cantata Rejoice in the Lamb, at Maison Symphonique on the Sunday preceding Christmas.

The Ceremony of Carols, composed in 1942, is one of Britten's better-known works. It's scored for three-part treble chorus, solo voices and harp. Britten wrote A Ceremony of Carols, during World War 2 while he was crossing the Atlantic in 1942 aboard a cargo ship. Since then, the work has become a staple during the Christmas season. It was written originally for a three-part boys’ choir, with soloist and harp accompaniment. Some of the carols are in Latin; some are in Middle English based on poems from the 15th and 16th centuries.

It was pleasing to hear this Yuletide favourite performed by treble chorus and harp, rather than the frequently rendered arrangement for mixed choir and piano. The composition is better suited to treble voices. At this performance, the Choeur de l’École de Musique Vincent d’Indy’s director François Ouimet was able to showcase this fine ensemble. 

The student choristers began singing the Procession as they entered from the rear of the hall. They experienced a bit of difficulty staying together as the two aisles they used are at opposite sides of the auditorium. Overall the choir was resonant in all registers and was technically in command of the material. I was impressed by their rendition of This Little Babe as well as by the conclusion of There is No Rose. Kudos to harpist Antoine Mallette-Chénier on his expressive playing.

Ouimet remained on the podium for Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb, or Festival Cantata, which was sung by the Choeur Métropolitain. This work was premiered on 21 September 1943. The text for the cantata is excerpted from a poem entitled Jubilate agno, by Christopher Smart. The 18th-century poet was in an asylum when he penned it. Although there is a delightful sense of madness in the poem, the religious character is dominant. The incomplete manuscript was not discovered until 1939 by William Stead, who published it under the name Rejoice in the Lamb. Britten chose ten of the more celebratory and religious sections for his cantata. The piece was originally scored for male choir, organ, percussion, and four soloists. At this concert, an SATB chorus was used and the accompaniment was provided solely by organ.

Impressively quiet, yet suspenseful, singing from the 85 members of the Choeur Métropolitain launched this performance. At all dynamic levels, the choir demonstrated fine vocal production.The afternoon’s four young soloists are all currently honing their skills at Montréal’s Atelier Lyrique. They were Elizabeth Polese (soprano), Florence Bourget (mezzo-soprano), Spencer Britten (tenor), and Scott Brooks (bass-baritone). Each fully met the vocal demands in both the Britten and Dvořák. They sang with the poise and confidence of seasoned professionals.

After intermission, we moved on to Dvořák’s Mass in D major. This composition reflects the composer’s humble faith and his true joy of life. Dvořák conducted the premiere himself. At that concert, the alto solo was sung by his wife Anna. On this occasion, the Dvořák was ably led by Pierre Tourville. Once again Vincent Boucher provided the accompaniment on organ. As was the case in the Britten, I found that the organ was overpowering at times.

I was impressed by the choir’s small, yet capable, tenor section in the Gloria. The final Amen in the Credo was particularly well done. Another standout was the vocal soloists’ quartet in the Agnus Dei. The choir’s soprano section struggled at times with the vocal demands imposed by this piece.

To round out the afternoon, the Orchestre Métropolitain’s Music Director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin was on the podium for a Christmas Carol sing-a-long. Here the Choeur Métropolitain was joined by the Choeur de l’École de Musique Vincent d’Indy as well as members of the St Lambert Choral Society. The sing-a-long  constituted a heart-warming conclusion to an afternoon of fine choral music.

****1