This was one of those summer evenings at The Sheldonian where the setting sun angles its rays through the occluded glass of the elongated windows, bathing parts of the interior in a light of acid-yellow and ochre. A magical effect!
Haydn's motet Insanae et vanae curae was originally an air from his first oratorio Il Ritorno di Tobia (The Return of Tobias). The work is long-consigned to the dusty shelves of musical libraries, leaving Insanae et vanae curae as a stand-alone amuse-gorge. The familiar text, the subject of a million Sunday sermons, ends in Sunt fausta tibi cuncta, si Deus est pro te [All things turn out fortunately provided God is with you], a case of wishful optimism over dull pragmatism. The choir of around 40 made a vigorous thrust at the piece, though hampered by a distinct wobble in the violins, as they passed through an admonitory phase to reach the calmer waters of hope.
The facts of the life of the Sicilian composer Emanuele Astorga (b. 1680), are as thin on the ground as conkers in May. We read that his father got on the wrong side of the occupying Spanish forces and was hanged in public while his wife and Emanuele were forced to watch. The former is reported to have had a heart attack and died on the spot, while Emanuele was overcome by depression. Stabat Mater derives from John’s Gospel's account of the Crucifixion; the Virgin Mary standing at the base of the cross. This scenario must surely have had profound personal significance for the composer.
For this Baroque chamber piece the brass and winds vanished, leaving the strings rather more exposed than was comfortable. Tinged with melancholy, the work features ornate solos, duets, and trios alternated with rising chromatic lines and imitative moments for the chorus. Our four soloists were individually more stretched here than in the Requiem, primarily a work for choir. I thought all four satisfactory, with perhaps the full-throated baritone Alex Bower-Brown the stand-out, though he did struggle a little with the notes at the bottom of the range, marked for a bass. The organ continuo underpinning the violins gave body to the strings', but in other respects I fear the violins lacked both volume and firmness of tone.
Mozart's Requiem is oh-so-familiar, yet remains a searching test for amateur musicians. The pair of bassoons in the Introit were prominent, and the trombones were a real feature throughout, the fact that they numbered a generous three giving them impact. For the cum vix justus sit securus at the end of the Tuba mirum, the soloists sang with pleasing blending of voices, and then in the Lacrimosa, the very kernel of the work, the choir doubled with the thumps from the timpani, and conductor Mark Jordan had its four sections combining beautifully as the noble music swelled, ebbed and then flowed.