The theme of this concert is rather a gloomy one – music others might hear at your funeral. It is delivered by the chorus of the Dunedin Consort with no accompaniment and it is conducted by Nicholas Mulroy, who is more often seen as a tenor with the Consort but who is developing his conducting career. Does it work? Well yes, not least because the concert varies between the old and the new, from the 16th century to very recent works by James Macmillan. It also helps that the beautiful Canongate Kirk has a resonance perfectly attuned to a small 13 strong choral group, although a bit of musical accompaniment may have filled out the experience and differentiated the works chosen.
The concert begins with a simple plainsong, introducing the Requiem Aeternam by 16th century Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria. The Requiem comprises six parts, and the concert starts with the first, Introit, with the remaining parts interspersed with other examples of ‘music of loss and consolation’. This structure allows the Consort to display the range and colour of their voices, excellent as always, although one of the sopranos was perhaps a little too dominant. It also has the advantage of breaking up what in its entirety might have been too solemn an event, a 16th century Spanish Requiem lacking some of the musical freedom of noted 19th and 20th century Requiem masses, and being probably more suited to a church service than a concert. It is also interesting to watch Mulroy conducting not only with his hands but as a singer shaping the phrasing with his mouth to give the cue to the chorus.
Interestingly the first part of the Requiem is followed by A Child’s Prayer, composed by James Macmillan in 1996 in tribute to the children murdered at Dunblane. There is a simple but effective chant of ‘welcome and joy’ by lower voices while the sopranos soar above them. This is followed by de Victoria’s Kyrie, and then a work by Edinburgh trained composer Cecilia McDowall – Standing as I do before God – a choral setting of words spoken by the British nurse Edith Cavell before her execution by German soldiers in 1915, combined with lines by the poet Sean Street. This beautiful music brings home the tragedy of war and of Cavell’s death. After de Victoria’s Offertory we end with a short work by Roderick Williams, better known as a fine baritone, but on the evidence of this melodic offering, which is a response to 16th century composer Thomas Tallis’ Salvator Mundi, a talented composer too.
The second half of the concert follows a similar pattern. A work by another Spanish composer Alonso Lobo, choirmaster at Toledo Cathedral precedes de Victoria’s Agnus Dei. They are followed by a beautifully sung work, Drop, drop slow tears, whose tune is by English composer Orlando Gibbons but arranged to the poem of Phineas Fletcher by Ralph Vaughan Williams in the twentieth century, and now a standard part of church music. Following de Victoria’s Lux Aeterna we hear Judith Bingham’s Watch With Me, commissioned for the choir of Westminster Abbey to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, combining words from the Gospel of St Matthew with Wilfred Owen’s poem Exposure; together they make a powerful impression. After a final piece of de Victoria’s work, Libera Me, the concert is brought to an uplifting conclusion by James Macmillan’s setting of John Donne’s great poem Bring us, O Lord God. The poem calls ‘a last awakening’ through the gate and into the house of heaven, so that we ‘may dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music…’, set to suitable music to give us hope for eternity as we leave the church.