VERDI – Requiem Mass
Bryony Williams (soprano) / Margaret Medlyn (m-sop) / Richard Greager (tenor) / Rodney Macann (bass)
NZ Choral Federation May Workshop Choir
Rosemary Russell (assistant director) / Thomas Gaynor (organ and piano)
Michael Fulcher (conductor)
Brass: Danny Kirgan / Chris Clark / Chris Woolley / David Kempton / Matthew Stein (trumpets)
Benjamin Zilber / Ben Robertson / Tim Walsh (trombones)
Percussion (timpani): Brent Stewart
Salvation Army Citadel, Vivian St., Wellington
Saturday 12th May, 2012
Twenty-five years ago this year, Sir David Willcocks, doyen of British choral conductors at the time, came to New Zealand and took the very first of the New Zealand Choral Federation Wellington workshops. Local choral conductor John Knox, who had sung in the Bach Choir in London under Willcocks, had formed a friendship with him over time, and invited him to come and conduct choirs in New Zealand (one of which occasions I well remember, that of a performance of the Berlioz Requiem in Wellington in 1986). It was on Willcocks’ third visit here, in 1988, that he took that now-historic first NZCF workshop, which featured music by one of the Venetian Gabrielis and the North German Samuel Scheidt.
New Zealand’s equivalent to David Willcocks was and is undoubtedly Peter Godfrey, now aged 90, and present at the concert on Saturday evening. Godfrey took over the workshops for the next seven years, returning in 2002 after a break of another seven years (all very Biblical) to direct a workshop featuring this evening’s work, the Verdi Requiem. So there were wheels and circles clicking and circling around and about and coming full circle with tonight’s performance of that same work, the director on this occasion being Michael Fulcher, taking part in his (you’ve guessed it!) seventh workshop for the NZCF.
In all, nine directors have led the workshops over the duration, with Peter Godfrey and Michael Fulcher clocking up the most frequent appearances between them. As well, a goodly proportion of the singers present (requested by chairperson Elizabeth Crayford during her closing speech at the end of the concert, to show their hands) indicated that they were also at various of these earlier occasions – in fact, several indicated that they had attended that very first workshop directed by Willcocks. All of which contributed to the festive atmosphere and undoubted emotion of this, the most recent event, one that was fortunately crowned by a remarkable performance of the Verdi Mass, put together by Michael Fulcher and his assistant director, Rosemary Russell (replacing an indisposed Mark Dorrell), with just two days’ rehearsal for the singers and instrumentalists – “born in fiery hour!” as Robert Schumann would have said.
Actually “two days’ rehearsal” suggests more time than was actually given the performers, as the two hundred and eighty or so choir members met together for the first time on Friday evening, working for two hours from seven until nine o’clock. They began again at nine o’clock on Saturday morning and workshopped it all until five o’clock in the afternoon. The soloists and instrumentalists (pianist, brass players, percussionist) came in on Saturday afternoon. True, some people had done a bit of preparation with their own choirs (eg. the Festival Singers), and some got the music in advance. Most people, however, were issued with their scores on Friday night.
All of which suggests some kind of alchemy on the part of Michael Fulcher and assistant Rosemary Russell, in pulling such a massive work together in such a short time with people in various stages of preparation. But far more than simply getting the music to hold recognizably together, the performance sounded truly inspired – here was one of those instances where enthusiasm and sheer will combined with skill and experience to produce something memorable and satisfying for all concerned.
From the first, opening bars of the work, spare, plaintive-sounding tones from Thomas Gaynor’s piano (with an unexpectedly arpeggiated chord at one point!), followed by the murmured hush of those first “Requiems” from two-hundred-plus voices, the music unfolded with living, breathing surety, our sensibilities all a-tingle at being in the same space as those voices, and almost made to feel each intake of the singers’ breath. Michael Fulcher’s control of the voices’ tonal ebb and flow was masterly, the men’s stentorian “Te decet hymnus” startling by comparison with the ambiently-floated “luceat eis”, and the choir’s variation of dynamics ever leading the ear onwards, and giving us a taste of things to come.
At the Kyrie it was the soloists’ turn, each a distinctive and characterful voice, feeing their way into the performance’s particular terrain – tenor Richard Greager heroic and Italianate, the vibrato pronounced at forceful moments, but the singing stylish as always, followed by bass Rodney Macann’s imposing and expansively-phrased utterances (his conductor flashing him the first of a few “hurry-along” glances which added interest to the evening). Then there were the women, both soprano Bryony Williams and mezzo-soprano Margaret Medlyn investing their tones and phrases with theatrical intensity, the four singers working hand-in-glove to blend their tones and achieve a balance between devotional and dramatic focus. Mention must be made of the choir’s beautiful final “Christe eleision”, Michael Fulcher securing precise and secure attack on those ethereal notes.
When the “Dies Irae” started I wrestled with the idea of jumping the audience parapet and rushing to the unattended bass drum to deliver a few much-needed thwacks and rolls to join in with the mayhem, as I could see that timpanist Brent Stewart wasn’t going to budge from his timpani throughout. I was told afterwards that the drum was never going to be part of the scheme, and that it was put on the stage merely by rote by the organizers. Oh, it was tantalizing! – but a pity, too, because the brass ensemble punched their whiplash chords and baleful cries out with great gusto, giving the chorus plenty of ambient terror in which to hurl their frightened cries of “Dies irae, dies illa” – all we needed to complete the picture was that abyss opening up beneath, via a few cavernous rolls at the bottom of the textures, something the timpani simply didn’t have a deep enough voice for.
Still, the brass played their hearts out at the “Tuba mirum”, the offstage trumpet surviving a shaky moment to join in with the mounting awe and terror in great style. Rodney Macann’s wonderfully rhetorical delivery of “Mors stupebit” needed a bigger, blacker noise in support that the timps could give, as well, and Michael Fulcher, playing the piano at this point, and moving things along, caught his timpanist on the hop for the latter’s first entry – though Brent Stewart soon caught up. Margaret Medlyn’s “Liber scriptus” sounded as though written for her – she gave it terrific thrust at “Unde mundus judicetur”, though for some reason there was no brass just before “Judex ergo cum sedebit”, and Medlyn also had to skip a beat to accommodate her pianist at one point – a true case of “Nil inultum remanebit” indeed.
The choir was again superb with their ensuing “Dies Irae” reprise, Fulcher adroitly juggling his pianist’s and conductor’s role at this point, before the “Quid sum miser”, with soprano, mezzo and tenor blending their tones again beautifully and Bryony Williams impressing with a shining soprano ascent towards the end, nicely assured. I wanted more sheer noise from everybody (sensationalist that I am) at the beginning of “Rex tremendae” on the opening word “Rex”, though the choir’s “Salva Me’s” at the end were terrific, achieving real supplicatory grandeur! And Margaret Medlyn’s blending with Bryony Williams throughout the lovely, tender “Quarens me” and into the dramatic interchanges of “Ante diem rationis” satisfied on all counts.
I’m uncomfortably aware, at this point in the review, that to go on indulging in “writing up” my great pleasure in all aspects of the performance would produce something whose volume would be akin to ballast for an ocean-going liner! Suffice to say that the soloists continued throughout as they began, Richard Greager soothing our sensibilities in places throughout “Qui Marian absolvisti” (though he had only just enough breath for his final “Statuens in parte dextra”), and Rodney Macann properly apocalyptic in his “Confutatis maledictis”, his phrasing again rhetorical and measured in places (he chose a lower option instead of his final ascent with “Gere curium mei finis”). In the final “Lacrymosa” Margaret Medlyn again hit the emotional spot with a searing “Huic ergo parce Deus”, before counterpointing Rodney Macann’s reprise of the melody. Choir and soloists combined to great effect, Bryony Williams soaring aloft, her supplications piercing the heart. A beautiful blending of the individual voices at “Pie Jesu, Domine” followed, then some dark-and-light exchanges between mens and women’s voices in the choir eventually came together for a heartfelt “Amen”.
The soloists had further opportunities throughout the “Offertorium”, blending beautifully and making the most of individual moments (Richard Greager unexpectedly more forthright than prayerful at “Hostias”, and Rodney Macann phrasing a little too fulsomely in places, prompting further “encouragement” by Michael Fulcher, but still making something memorable of his “Quam Olim Abrahae” utterances). Bryony Williams negotiated her treacherous but celestial evocation of St.Michael nicely, floating her notes securely downwards from on high. Throughout, the ensemble handled Verdi’s amalgam of prayerfulness and dramatic impulse with aplomb, with Fulchers’s direction vital and focused, and keeping things on the move.
Then it was the chorus’s turn with the “Sanctus” to shine, the brass splendidly festive at the beginning, the voices exuberant in reply. At Fulcher’s steady tempo the lines danced and glowed throughout, the voices having plenty of tonal variation at “Pleni sun coeli”, and wonderful attack at the bell-like “Hosannas” at the end. And the instrumentalists were spot-on with their outlandish, syncopated ascents leading to the final joyous cries to finish – a riot of energy, colour and exuberance.
No greater contrast to it all was there than that of the “Agnus Dei” – firstly, soprano and mezzo in “octave-unison”, accents and timbres well-matched, the choir intense, but warm and supplicatory in response; then a minor-key version from the same soloists, beautifully accompanied by the organ, with the soranos an octave higher in response this time – a lovely sound! How other-worldly by comparison the “Lux aeterna” sounds! – Margaret Medlyn sounding a trifle unsteady with one of her entries, but still conveying a sense of celestial light shining forth to confront the darkness of Rodney Macann’s grim-voiced “Requiem aeternam” – the ensembled trio (with tenor Richard Greager) again mellifluously blended throughout (I missed the composer’s creepy downward chromatic wind lines at “Cum sanctis tuis”, but the singing provided ample compensation).
And so to the dramatic “Libera me”. Verdi’s original contribution to a planned requiem to honor Rossini, a project that didn’t “make it” during the composer’s lifetime (in fact, not until 1988, when a belated performance was mounted in Stuttgart). The “Libera me” is as dramatic in its own way as the “Dies Irae” part of the work, though featuring only the soprano from the quartet of soloists, along with the chorus and orchestra. It’s a wonderful showcase for both soloist and chorus, and both here were well up to the composer’s demands, supported by dexterous piano playing and closely-worked direction from Michael Fulcher. From the beginning Bryony Williams fully engaged with the music, urgent and searing at “Dum veneris judicare speculum per ignem” – though the piano didn’t match the wonderfully ghoulish bassoon tones of the original at this point, the fear and horror in Williams’ voice was palpable enough, contrasting with the choir’s previously hushed, awe-struck “Libera me, Dominum”.
The return of the “Dies Irae” blazed anew, with powerful work from chorus and brass, then some wonderfully sepulchral exchanges between the men’s voices, baleful trombones and ghostly organ tones paved the way for Bryony Williams’ haunting reprise, with the choir in attendance, of the work’s opening “Requiem” music, concluding with the soloist’s cruelly-exposed octave ascent, here triumphantly realized. But what volatility this music has! – over a “Devil’s Interval” tremolando (difficult to achieve on a piano) the soprano reiterates the fearful opening text “Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna” and awakens the fugue, which has always sounded to my ears the work’s most exacting and fearsome challenge for the chorus.
Michael Fulcher kept it “steady as she goes”, enabling the voices to negotiate even the densest figurations, as well as integrate the soloist’s adding to the textures at several points (Bryony Williams crying mercy for all humanity, here), but also building the excitement of the surging ascents of the women’s voices, before the men take their turn to initiate the forward thrust, with “Veneris, judicare, speculum….” leading up to the brass-and-timpani-supported cataclysmic climax that lacked only the bass drum for its impact to raise the roof of the Citadel. It remained for soprano and chorus to reiterate the words “Libera me”, and allow the silences that followed to proclaim the end.
For a performance such as we had just heard to come from less than two full days of workshop and rehearsal seemed near to miraculous. Very great credit to conductor Michael Fulcher and assistant director Rosemary Russell, for inspiring singers and instrumentalists to give what I imagine would have been their best endeavours, something of great value for performers and listeners alike. For everybody involved with or connected to the Choral Federation in any way, it all would have been a wonderful twenty-fifth birthday present at the end of what must have felt like an exhilarating couple of days!