THE quintessentially female story of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth when Mary was pregnant with Jesus and Elizabeth with John the Baptist, has resulted in one of the glories of sacred music, “The Magnificat”.
Robyn Mellor’s eight-piece female choir Polifemy was unusually well-suited to the subject matter, but in putting together a concert of rarefied Magnificat compositions, Mellor was taking no chances. As well as providing exquisite vocal harmonies, Mellor adopted an eclectic programming style, bringing in organist Peter Young, who appeared as a guest artist, not just to support the singers but to perform organ music by Peeters, Tailleferre, Frescobaldi and Pachelbel. Young’s quietly-played interludes, however, did not dominate the afternoon.
Choir members Isabelle Mellor and Krista Vincent recited both the Latin and English versions of “The Magnificat” and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem “Mary’s girlhood”, an idealised vision of “the virgin” set to music especially for Polifemy by American composer Bretton Brown.
While the ensemble is to be applauded for taking on this deliberately dissonant and complex composition, the sacred “mystery” to which Brown’s notes say he aspired was little evident, in spite of a capable performance.
But Mellor’s clever programming saw work buried in the midst of a series of exquisite re-workings of the Magnificat theme, beginning with a melodic 13th century version by Gilles Binchois that allow the singers their full harmonic range.
A much later version by Francesco Feroci allowed for strong solo work, while Joachim Kelecom’s “Magnificat” allowed for a confident performance in which accompanied sections with a cappella and the concluding work of the afternoon by Alessandro Grandi featuring the repetition of phrases, represented a lighter tone well-suited to the subject matter.
But the strength of this concert was seen in substantial pieces from two very different composers. The centrepiece of the afternoon was undoubtedly the Magnificat chosen from the many versions written by Palestrina, smoothly phrased yet grand and sublime.
And yet, right outside the Italianate/Latin tradition of the Magnificat, the Anglican version by former director of music at Magdalen College, Malcolm Pearce, struck me as being exquisitely beautiful. Here the vocal powers of Polifemy were well matched by the phrasing and articulation, showing that in the right hands, English can be as “musical” as any other language.