Bella Voce gives eloquent voice to two rare requiems

Mon Oct 19, 2009 at 12:37 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Bella Voce performed requiems by Herbert Howells and Cristobal de Morales Saturday night at St. James Cathedral.

Over its 27-year history, first as His Majestie’s Clerkes and currently as Bella Voce, the a cappella vocal ensemble has presented a significant amount of new works (Frank Ferko’s Stabat mater among them) and a discerning mix of familiar and overlooked repertory.

It’s too bad that the turnout was so sparse Saturday night for Bella Voce’s season opener at St. James Cathedral. Perhaps the program of two relatively little-known requiems was too adventurous for more conservative audience members.

That’s unfortunate because under the skillful and sensitive direction of Andrew Lewis, the Bella Voce singers distinguished themselves, in glowing, responsive performances of music that deserve to be much better known. The good news is that the program will be repeated this weekend in River Forest and Evanston (see below) and you owe it to yourself to hear these fine performances.

Cristobal de Morales became an unlikely crossover success a decade ago when the Hilliard Ensemble teamed up with jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek for a striking improvisational retooling of early chant and masses, spotlighting the Spanish composer’s monastic polyphony.

Morales’ Missa pro defunctis of 1544 was one of the first masses “for the dead,” and remains one of the glories of the Renaissance. The stately slow-moving polyphony is crafted with the greatest skill and subtlety, voices interwoven masterfully. Like much church music of the period, the drama is more suggested than overt—the Dies irae sounds wholly untroubled and, perhaps, the alternation of high and low voices in the Sequentia becomes a bit repetitive.

But this is extraordinarily beautiful music, distinctive in its multipart writing and division of voices. Lewis and his 17 singers provided a radiant, deeply moving account of Morales’ Missa with striking bell-like purity from the ensemble’s altos.

Four centuries after Morales’ mass was published, Herbert Howells wrote his Requiem. Breaking a decade-long compositional silence, Howells’ work was a private expression of overwhelming grief in the wake of the death of his nine-year-old son in 1936. The Requiem wasn’t performed until 1981, forty-five years after its composition.

Like Brahms, Howells mixes sacred and secular texts and at its finest the Requiem has extraordinary power and eloquence.  The two Requiem aeternam sections are most inspired, high voices set soaring in the first and radiating an otherworldly peace and serenity in the second. Lewis and his 22 singers gave Howells’ Requiem masterful advocacy with superb solo singing in a scrupulously blended and affecting performance.

The Requiem was preceded by Howells’ Take Him Earth, for Cherishing. Written for a memorial service honoring President John  F. Kennedy, Howells’ work begins in simple homophonic fashion before erupting with thorny Matthias-like dissonance in the middle section.  Under Lewis’s’ direction, Bella Voce  gave rich and vehement expression to this music.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest and 4 p.m. Sunday at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston.; 312-479-1096.

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