Sacred Heart Cathedral Choir sings Victoria – a moment in time

A Requiem for All Souls

Tomás Luis de Victoria – Mass for the Dead

Sacred Heart Cathedral Choir

Michael Stewart, director

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St., Wellington

Saturday, 30th October 2010

I ought to confess right here and now to having a bias towards presentations of liturgical plainchant, as it was very much the kind of church music I grew up with, being a Catholic and a New Zealand child of the 1950s. So, of course, this concert touched so many of my points by dint of sheer content, the effect immeasurably augmented by the general excellence of the singing and the music’s direction throughout. This was a reconstruction by Michael Stewart and the Cathedral Choir of Renaissance Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Mass for the Dead, or Requiem, in a proper liturgical setting – that is, in the context of the Catholic Mass. The placement of Victoria’s beautiful polyphony amidst the plainer and starker liturgical chants worked to the advantage of both, creating a well-nigh unique ambience, one to which the Cathedral surroundings gave even more atmosphere and impact.

Throughout the opening Introit Requiem I got the impression that these choir voices hadn’t been overly-moulded and honed into an excessively homogenous blend, a quality which I liked in this circumstance, as it gave to my ears a plainer, more direct and accessible feeling to the singing, almost as if the music was something one could oneself join in with. Having said this, in no way do I want to give the impression that the singing was anything but beautiful throughout – if the lines were not always ideally pure, they were still in tune; and invariably made up in focus and fervour for what they occasionally lacked in elegance. The middle voices gave consistent pleasure at the outset, with “et lux perpetua luceat eis”, bringing into relief moments such as the sopranos’ strongly-etched “et tibi reddetur” which followed. But most telling was the reprise of Requiem, which had a wonderfully charged devotional quality, an evocation whose intensity set the tone for everything that was to follow, such as the succeeding Kyrie, beautifully blossoming upwards from its first phrase, and contrasting nicely with its hushed, ethereal companion Christe.

Choir and conductor brought out the beauties of the Graduale, with its flourishes at “dona eis Domine” and timelessly-wrought cadences at the word “perpetua”. There was delight at a single soprano voice at “In memoria” being joined by others and reaching full resplendent tones at “mala non timebit”, the latter sequence  all the more wondrous through being “ritualized” by the plainchant exchanges between celebrant and choir. But what really set my pulses racing was the singing of the Dies irae, all eighteen verses of it, each poetic metre of three lines a self-contained meditation or beseechment regarding the Day of Judgement. When I was at school, we sang this alternating verses between small group and larger choir; but here, tonight, this was performed with full choir throughout, each verse given subtle variations of colour and emphasis depending on its content. The last, Lacrimosa, breaks the metre somewhat and features a new melody, which releases the tensions built up by the previous repetitions and their ever-growing emphasis, here realized by Michael Stewart and his choir in a profoundly satisfying way, at once sturdy, resigned and aspiring to the celestial.

And so it all proceeded, ritualistic gestures of exchange alternating with Victoria’s exquisite word-settings, such as those of the Offertorium, allowing us to relish the choir’s surge of emotion at “de poenis inferni”, and the luminous soprano lines at “repraesentet eas in lucem sanctam”, both moments to be treasured. And I enjoyed the celebrant’s intoning of both “Vere dignum et justum est” at the Preface and the Pater Noster, once again losing myself in remembrances of the patterning of the chants and their variants. Alternatively, Victoria’s treatment of the Sanctus put me in mind of Thomas Tallis in places, while the Lux aeterna again featured a nicely-distilled soprano line at the outset, and a properly devotional “quia pius es”, though I did register a touch of “hooted” tone from those same sopranos in the “Requiem aeternam” section. With the Libera me, the Proper of the Mass concluded, Victoria leaving the opening line as plainchant before developing “Quando caeli movendi sunt et terra” into vivid descriptions, tenor, alto and bass lines standing forth at “Tremens factus”, and with the whole choir excitingly igniting the textures at the point of return to the “Dies irae” text. As was fitting, the lovely cadential resolutions at “Requiem aeternam” worked their spell alongside the varied reprise of “Libera me”, extending the music’s mood, colour, declamation and harmony, and leaving the plainchant Antiphon to bring things to a properly poised and dignified end.

Given that my appreciation of this concert was undoubtedly coloured by my own history and experience of the music’s liturgical context, I felt confident nevertheless that my enthusiasm for the singing and conducting, as well as for the overall conception of performance, was well-founded. I’m sure my enjoyment would have been shared by all at the Cathedral that evening.

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