A litany of Requiems from Nota Bene at St Mary of the Angels

Herbert Howells: Requiem; Albinoni: Adagio; Schütz: Two choral pieces; Pearsall: ‘Lay a Garland’; Lukáš: Requiem Aeternam; Sam Piper: ‘Kyrie’; Jan Sandström: ‘Sanctus’; Barber: ‘Agnus Dei’; David Hamilton: Lux Aeterna; Fauré: ‘Pie Jesu’ from Requiem in D; Tavener: Song for Athene

Nota Bene Chamber Choir, conducted by Peter de Blois, with Lara Denby (soprano, in Fauré’s ‘Pie Jesu’) and Douglas Mews (organ, in Albinoni and Fauré)

St. Mary of the Angels Church, Boulcott Street

Sunday, 3 April, 2.30pm

In its seven years of existence, Nota Bene has found a particular spot in the large choral firmament that is Wellington: that of a mixed chamber choir with a wide and varied repertoire, singing in a variety of venues. It is marked by accuracy, finesse and elegance.

The sung works on this programme were all Requiems, movements from Requiems, or choral songs which speak of death. That is not to say that the music was entirely doleful or sombre in character.

Herbert Howells’s Requiem began the first half, followed by several other items. In the second half there were 7 movements: Requiem, ‘Kyrie’, ‘Sanctus’, ‘Agnus Dei’, ‘Lux Aeterna’, ‘Pie Jesu’, ‘Alleluia’, by a variety of composers. The major choral Requiems in the repertoire are not consistent as to the movements of which they are made up; the movements chosen for this concert made up a reasonable summary, although there was no ‘Libera Me’ movement. Perhaps the selection was most like that of Fauré in his Requiem of 1887.

While the printed programme gave the dates for some of the compositions, the dates for the composers were not given, which was a pity. With so many composers’ works being performed, it would have been interesting to compare the styles and settings from different periods.

The opening of the Howells, ‘O Saviour of the world’ was serene and lovely; it set the tone for the entire concert. Choral tone and blend could not be faulted. Unlike the case with many choirs, this choir has men’s voices as good and as reliable as the women’s.

This work featured soloists Gillian Bruce (soprano), Maaike Christie-Beekman (mezzo), Patrick Geddes and John Fraser (tenors) and Simon Christie (baritone), all of whom sang confidently and well. The last-named was familiar to Wellington audiences a number of years ago, as a student and after, singing solo, and performing particularly well in humorous operatic roles. I recall him as an amusing Papageno in a university production of Mozart’s Magic Flute.

The second movement of the Howells was Psalm 23. Here, there were strong and accurate unison passages interspersed with the part-setting.

‘Requiem aeternam’ (1) followed. It was peaceful and very beautiful. Next was Psalm 121 ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills’. This featured Christie in a fine bass solo. There was glorious light and shade throughout the movement, from excellent phrasing and well-controlled dynamic variation.

The second ‘Requiem aeternam’ was intensely solemn. Notable was the good forte sound, in this sympathetic acoustic. The final movement was ‘I heard a voice from heaven’ (from the Book of Revelation). It was indeed a heavenly sound, yet with a mourning, wailing aspect to it.

The whole effect of the work was understated mourning, alternating with peace and comfort afforded by the words of Scripture. The music was certainly twentieth century, but gentle and contemplative, discords serving the purport of the words rather than being there for their own sake.

This work was followed by the famous Albinoni Adagio (not by him at all, but by his 20th-century biographer, Remo Giazotto, according to the programme note). It was appropriately solemn to go with the Requiems, given interesting registration and sensitively played by Douglas Mews, with more phrasing than one usually hears it given. But it is a pretty hackneyed piece to play in a concert like this. I imagine its purpose was to give the singers a rest.

Two German settings by Heinrich (the usual form of his name, though the ‘Henrich’ in the programme is another form) Schütz gave the choir an opportunity to sing baroque music in very good German. The quiet passages were exquisitely controlled, while the tone was rich for the most part, although in the second piece, ‘Selig sind die Toten’, the tenor tone was variable, and not always attractive.

On to the nineteenth century now, and Robert Lucas de Pearsall’s quite lovely ‘Lay a Garland’. This madrigal sets words of Shakespeare, and is a favourite of Professor Peter Godfrey, who was in the audience; the National Youth Choir have frequently sung it. (Both Peter de Blois and this choir’s founder, Christine Argyle, are former members, as doubtless are other choir members). Here, Simon Christie’s voice was a little too dominant in the basses. Otherwise, the performance was superb.

The second half commenced with ‘Requiem Aeternam’ by contemporary Czech composer Zdeněk Lukáš. Both this setting and the ‘Kyrie’ that followed were sung by the National Youth Choir on its visit overseas in 1999. The contrasting textures here gave drama and impact, as did the exceedingly quiet ending. The vertical chords employing tonic and dominant were interspersed with close harmonies, and unison passages for one part only. It all made for a most attractive and interesting choral work.

Sam Piper, a former member of the National Youth Choir, wrote his ‘Requiem Aeternam’ for that choir. Nota Bene gave a very satisfying performance of a skilled piece of writing. There was plenty of dynamic contrast, which gave variety to the repetition of musical figures.

‘Sanctus’ by Sandström featured movement from intervals of thirds to seconds, creating a strong effect, and was executed with precision and finesse. It was a short but impressive work.

The prospect of the warhorse that is Barber’s Adagio was mitigated by its being the choral version ‘Agnus Dei’. I have heard this sung in concert quite recently; nevertheless, this was a superb performance. The interweaving lines became quite mesmeric.

Probably New Zealand’s most prolific choral composer, David Hamilton’s work has a sure touch, and is always very effective. The Lux aeterna begins with humming in parts. This had a shimmering quality. After the words are sung, there is a whispered invocation of ‘Lux aeterna’ from the tenors to end.

Fauré’s evocative and well-known ‘Pie Jesu’ from his Requiem was sung by young 17-year-old Lara Denby with organ accompaniment. It was a very accomplished rendition. The voice had sufficient volume, and a lovely quality; vowels were beautifully formed. There was particularly warm and prolonged applause for this item, partly because the performance of the Howells at the start of the concert was dedicated to the memory of her father, who died in December, and was a member of the choir.

The final item, John Tavener’s Song for Athene, is a work of subtly changing harmonies from the upper parts, while the basses sustain a single vowel through most of the piece. There appeared to be additional words that were not printed; these were sufficiently clear to be heard without seeing them. The ethereal and contemplative qualities of the music were fully realised.

Beginning the previous evening, there are at least six choral concerts in a period of two weeks in and around Wellington – is that not too many for the local audiences to take in? Nevertheless, this excellent concert was well-attended and deservedly, warmly received.

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