Choral concerts often have programmes that read like compilation CDs. I don’t mean this negatively: there are countless reasons why a greater number of contrasting pieces is required – timbral, textual, temporal, contextual, historical, and so on. The programme of motets and madrigals, old and new, for Exultate Singers’ A Sense of the Divine concert would entice many a CD collector and concert-goer alike. Exultate are a rising star in the choral world and the choir’s brilliance in this concert sang of its continued ascension. But a bewildering decision to trot out some overly-trodden opera choruses risked eclipsing this sparkle – and ruining the cohesiveness and integrity of the compilation, too.

© Louise Broom
© Louise Broom

We began with Palestrina’s Exultate Deo, which was as confident, bright and joyful as a signature piece should be, as was Monteverdi’s Cantate Domino which followed. After this radiant start, the concert took a rather tenebrous turn into the dark, chromatic sinuousness of Gesualdo’s O vos omnes, the stark twists and turns of which shock even modern-day ears. Exultate were more than equal to Gesualdo’s extraordinary writing, and their performance was superb despite its very slow tempo, which I felt prevented it from hitting the heights of intensity it could have. These were achieved, however, in the amazing repeated outcries of “Maria!” (no, not in a Berstein way!) opening Górecki’s Totus Tuus. After these startling invocations, however, Gorecki’s writing settles into a rather sedate, repetitive, mildly-dissonant section, before regaining the mystery and drama of its opening with a return to utterances of “Maria” – now full-bodied and powerful, now pianissimo and spent.

James MacMillan’s Miserere is a response to that cornerstone of the choral repertoire, Allegri’s setting of Psalm 51. The way in which Exultate sang it, I’d say Macmillan’s work is almost as worthy as canonical status as its inspiration. It was, quite literally, jaw-dropping. Following his 17th-century model, Macmillan contrasts sonorous polyphonic sections with those dominated by chant. Long vocalising soprano lines are underpinned by the mens’ dramatic pianissimo hummed entries, dropping like a pebble into the clear pool of choral sound. Quotes from Allegri appear in distant tonal centres, creating a haunting bitonality which subsides into the heavenly consonance of the final section and its overwhelming crescendo. This was an utterly staggering performance, and, for me, nothing short of a revelation.

How to follow such a piece? Exultate’s ambitious (and not entirely successful) solution was with Tallis’s 40-part motet Spem in alium. Encircling the audience around the gallery now, the reinforced choir made a valiant effort at this immensely difficult work, which requires all 40 singers to have total control and confidence in their individual parts. The resultant waves of sound were a little too cloudy and I didn’t find myself especially compelled by the work’s inimitable (but not unsurpassable) sonority.

After the break, Finnish composer Jaako Mäntyjärvi’s Iste Mundus, commissioned by Exultate for tonight’s concert, showed once again the choir’s fruitful relationship with modern music. Similarly to MacMillan, Mäntyjärvi plays with contrasting textures, with chant-like passages under static inverted pedals creating tension. Next, a pared down choir remained on stage to sing Monteverdi’s popular madrigal Lasciatemi morire, whilst other members assembled at the back of the hall to answer with Gesualdo’s Dolcissima mia vita. An imaginative use of the space, the real benefit of this choreography was musical: the choir’s full sonority at the start of Morten Lauridsen’s Fire Songs was glorious in its return to the full choir’s sonority. Lauridsen is a composer well-known for his ethereal O magnum mysterium, but this spotless and energetic performance of Fire Songs proved his compositional depth, despite unmissable resonances with O magnum in the set’s final song. A triumph for the choir, Fire Songs would have been the perfect number to bring the curtain (as well as the house) down on a truly excellent concert experience.

Alas, it was not to be, for we were served a completely incongruous and saccharine dessert of piano-accompanied 19th-century opera choruses, including the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser (which ended like a pub chorus, complete with bashed, almost honky-tonk, piano accompaniment); a trite (and rather cruel on the poor sopranos) Humming Chorus; and Mascagni’s “Easter Hymn” from Cavalleria Rusticana, which, out of context like this, must be one of the cheesiest pieces about. My heart went out to the singers, whose tireless excellence throughout the concert was drastically undermined by such an unnecessary error in programming, which brought a wholly professional performance into the realms of provincial amateur operatics.

If this concert were a compilation CD, these last numbers would be hidden tracks. I’m afraid they ought to have been hidden tonight, too. Had they been so, it would have been a truly fantastic concert, showcasing the exultant musicality of the Exultate Singers.