Concert Review: Cantata Singers, Thirteen Strings explore sorrow and loss

Cantata Singers of Ottawa, Michael Zaugg, conductor, with the Thirteen Strings and harpist Michelle Gott

St. Joseph’s Church

Saturday at 8 p.m.

OTTAWA — Stabat Mater is the name of a mediaeval hymn, or sequence to be more exact, that meditates on the sorrow of Mary as she stood at the foot of the cross. It is usually attributed to the Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi and has been immensely popular with the devout through most of its eight-century history. Today it is only one of only two sequences in common use, the other being Dies Irae.

For the last three years Michael Zaugg and his Cantata Singers have been exploring some of the many musical settings of the Stabat. Saturday evening they concluded the series with three versions.

The first was by Joseph Rheinberger (1839-1901). It’s a nice piece written in an idiom that sounds a little like Brahms with some echos of Schubert. The performance was sound, probably making as good a case for the work as can be made. The Singers stood on firm ground and clearly knew what to do with the music; likewise the Thirteen Strings.

The other two Stabats were by composers who still walk among us. Jaakko Mäntjaärvi (b. 1963) uses a kind of Finnish bard-like statement to underlie much of the music. Although there are some unusual harmonic devices throughout the piece, they don’t pose unreasonable challenges to the listener. It suggests powerfully the depths of sorrow depicted in the text.

The most sophisticated and beautiful setting was that of Paul Mealor (b. 1975), a Welshman who is said to be the most esteemed living composer in Britain. Zaugg, the Singers, soprano Misty Banyard and the orchestra delivered a nearly ideal account of the score

There were other works on the program, three of them instrumental. Michelle Gott played Fauré’s Impromptu No. 6 and later on the Interlude from Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. I had not heard this harpist before, but hope to hear her exquisite playing again one of these days. The Britten was especially lovely.

The Thirteen Strings played Barber’s famous Adagio under Zaugg’s baton. The playing was good and the emotional arc of the work was projected convincingly. It also fit the program well with its feeling of sorrow and desolation.

The choir also did O Virgo Virginum by Josquin des Prez. Josquin (1450-1521) was the first true master of Renaissance polyphony but his music is hard to put across effectively to audiences nowadays. Saturday’s rendition was so-so and was undermined by some ambiguous tuning.

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