BY JOHN CURRIE
Recitals of music for unaccompanied voices often concentrate, at best, on works from the Renaissance period with a seasoning dash of the contemporary, or, at worst, on what may be described as the "part-song" repertoire. There are, however, masterpieces for large chorus, written, often by great symphonists, in the 19th and 20th centuries.
As you would expect, the Romantic composers used their resources chromatically and expressively. The choir which chooses to sing these works must be involved in emotive, highly coloured key changes, and technically, must be able to offer a genuine "crescendo” as can the Romantic orchestra. It is a different technique, a different style of timing from that of Renaissance singing, and, as with the modem orchestra, assumes large numbers of participants.
Bruckner was one of the few composers of last century who produced church music for daily use. His motets are widely regarded as supreme examples of the genre. To a traditional liturgical style he adds great sweeping key-changes which underline the meaning of the text and invest every phrase with very immediate emotion. ''Ecce sacerdos" is very close in style to his great concert hall "Te deum''. It opens with a majestic declaration over held organ chords, and throughout the motet the fierceness of this opening rhetoric alternates with pliant, more tender statements. Stillness conquers in the end as the procession fades on the final "in plebem suam''. At first the ''Ave Maria" wears a Renaissance disguise, but the Brucknerian drama soon appears with an ecstatic cry of ''Jesu!", leading to further climactic shouts before all is resolved in the Amen. "Christus factus est'' contrasts death and resurrection. It begins sepulchrally in D minor then soars to new tonalities for words like "exaltavit". The motet ends peacefully in the grave where it started.
In the two Schoenberg motets, we hear two sides of the composer's style. "Dreimal”, written in 1949, very late in his creative life, is in the austere, keyless style of his later works, and yet the final effect on the ear is expressive and romantic, deeply sympathetic to the visionary and optimistic words of the poem. ''Friede auf Erden'' on the other hand is written in an earlier period (1907) only a few years after the gigantic, sumptuous "Gurrelieder". This is high romantic music, making heavy demands on the singers' sense of pitch and line. But, as with ''Dreimal”, the prophetic Schoenberg voice is unmistakable.
From the motets of Brahms, I have chosen one from Opus 74, and one from his last group of motets, Opus 110. These are works of a German, deeply respecting German musical attitudes and traditions. The shadow of Bach and the Lutheran chorale is never far away. Yet Brahms uses this tradition in his own expressive way. As in his symphonies, the tragic tensions are worked out in strong, dark textures before final resolution and assurance. Penderecki composed his "Stabat Mater'' in 1963 and later incorporated it into his "St. Luke Passion''. The setting is for three unaccompanied choruses, using only six of the 20 verses of the ancient poem. The style is typical. Words are shattered into separate syllables, to be rebuilt, point-by-point in the choral texture. Whispered, muttered and unpitched rhythmical sounds are also part of the fabric. In the first part, the music builds towards the word "Christe”, dramatically declaimed in a 48-part cluster of notes. The final section anchors on the note D, sung by the contraltos of the first choir, leading to the final word, "gloria'' on a good old-fashioned chord of D major.
The 40-part motet of Tallis, the only Renaissance work in this program, is unique. Polychoral and many-voiced works abound in this period. But only this work combines virtuosity with expressiveness in a way which, curiously, make the music intimate rather than spectacular. Tallis uses a formula of eight five-part choirs, and the score implies a circular arrangement. Three times the 40 interwoven parts stop to make rhetorical points: once before the words "in tribulatione" and twice before great cries of "res pice".
Both "Laudi alia vergine" and ''Pater noster'' were written by Verdi in old age. They represent a wonderful distillation of ideas, making spiritual demands of performers and audience alike. The text of "Laudi" is from the final canto of Dante's "paradise". Using a female choir, Verdi conveys the stillness of the mystical vision, with its symbols of eternal light and the sense of a universe in which the ever-turning stars, suns, and moons are moved by the will of God. The setting of the Pater noster, again showing Verdi's life-long love of the poetry of Dante, is seldom performed, perhaps because it makes dramatic demands of the singers which can only be achieved by a chorus of opera-house dimensions. Its musical construction is simple and masterly. The seven three-line stanzas are unified by an affectionate refrain on the word "padre''. Verdi leaves no doubt of his human (and very Italian) view of the Father.
In the folk-song group, I have been unable to resist the inclusion of one of Poulenc's French folk-song arrangements. ''Pilons l'orge'' (the shortest work in the repertoire?) wonderfully equates the grinding of the barley with husband-beating, and ends with an outrageous discord.
Handel's "Zadok the Priest" was written for the coronation of Britain's King George II in Westminster Abbey. It is one of a genre in which Handel used masses of performers (destroying the rather facile 20th-century opinion that Baroque always equals small and squeaky). It is Handel's most celebrated piece of large-scale ceremonial music, and has never been equaled in its genre.