Published shortly before the composer's death in 1974, Frank Martin's early Mass for double chorus a cappella was given its ravishing Washington premiere by the Paul Hill Chorale at the Kennedy Center Saturday night.
In purely musical terms, the Mass has the fervor of Bach's Passions and all the tension of an early morning dream. Its dynamic contrasts and simple melodies look ahead to the Swiss composer's oratorio "Golgotha," and its Sanctus section in particular offered a never surprising but always stunning unfolding of the harmonic fabric. Honegger's "Kng David" came to mind, but without its heroic resolve; this was a human piece about heavenly glory, and even as the sopranos sustained a fortissimo high B in the Kyrie, the sound remained strangely sensual and down to earth.
The performance ommitted the Credo section of the score, but was a success by any other standard. Now in its 14th season, the Paul Hill Chorale's many virtues and few vices are well known here. Musical preparation throughout the evening was impeccable, and the female voices soared with fulll-bodied beauty. The men in the chorus are less hefty, always reminiscent of a good college group but no more. Still, their collegiate sound was effective in the opening of the Sanctus, and it was obvious that everyone sang at his or her best.
Martin's Mass was, incidentally, the only time all the musical forces were on stage together at the same time. The evening was a celebration of antiphonal mussic, and throughout the other 12 works performed, the brass was in the boxes and singers were placed everywhere. The chorus put in as many steps as notes in this peripatetic concert. There were even chimes on every corner of the concert hall for Ives' "From the Steeples and the Mountains," with long and terrifying reverberations.
A disembodied and playful echo choir in Orlando di Lasso's "Ola! O Che Bon Eccho" recreated the delicate urban humor of this early work. And there was melancholy in John Carter's "The Splendor Falls," a setting of a Tennyson poem which found the women at one of their most eloquent moments of the evening. James Fritschel's pseudomodern "Everyone Sang," specially commissioned by the Chorale, was a minor piece for major forces.