The year’s centenary profoundly marked with a Requiem for the Fallen: O’Sullivan and Harris

(New Zealand Festival)

Purcell: ‘Hear my Prayer’
Messiaen: ‘O sacrum convivium’
Beethoven: Molto adagio from String Quartet in A minor, Op 132
Schnittke: Three spiritual songs
Ross Harris with words by Vincent O’Sullivan: Requiem for the Fallen

Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir, the New Zealand String Quartet, taonga puoro played by Horomona Horo, Richard Greager (tenor)
Conductor: Karen Grylls

Cathedral of St Paul, Wellington

Friday 28 February, 8 pm

One of the major events in any genre in this year’s festival, this concert, involving choir, string quartet and other soloists, deserved the full house that it attracted, as well as the immediate, standing ovation at the end.

The key element of course was the cantata (shall we call it, instead of a liturgical work?) that occupied the last part of the concert. The work of Vincent O’Sullivan and Ross Harris, it was written with this year’s momentous centenary very much in mind: the outbreak of the First World War in August of 1914. There is little new in the view that that war – all war – is evil and futile; made even more tragic by subsequent revelations that the Great War, in particular, happened through inexcusable
confusion, vacuous notions of ‘honour’, imperial ambition, and a failure of nerve and rejection of common sense. I have just read the latest of the hundreds of books on the origins of World War I, The Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark. No shred of statesmanship is evident in any quarter.

Poet and composer shared the same view, and there was nothing of conventional jingoism or patriotism in the words or the music. Naturally that eliminated the possibility of ‘pomp and circumstance’ music expressing glory, hope, righteousness or victoriousness. Into parts of the Requiem Mass, in Latin, O’Sullivan has interwoven comment, personal narrative and observations that leave little room for the usual religious blandishments.  He captured the essence of one of the most profound experiences in the history of this country.

Inevitably some of the language is familiar from the multitude of poems and stories that flowed from the 1914-18 war and from all wars every since.

In the Libera nos, the meaning shifts to pleading for freedom from ‘the hate we return for hate’, and to save us to return ‘from the hurl of grenades and impending wrath’.
The central and most arresting and horrific section is the Dies Irae in which the words of the mass lend themselves to describing the terrible wars of men and not merely the punishments of the Day of Judgement. Here, quite terrifying drums and trumpets as well as contributions from taonga puoro delivered a fearful message.
There are some strikingly vivid words: ‘Ah, the silence / lies gorged on fear’, ‘hear the random sweep of fire, / hear the leaden gasps choked choir’.

Later, in Memento mori, tenor Richard Greager represented the ordinary soldier, back home, years later, haunted for ever by memories of the horrors he experienced: ‘And I met a cobber on the road / Coming down the remembered way, / Only I was here, as large as life, / and he was in Suvla Bay.’

It was a semi-staged performance, facilitated by placing the performance platform in the centre of the nave, so the audience was divided on either side, thus allowing twice as many to be close to the performance; a great advantage in a very resonant acoustic. It also meant good sight-lines. Steps on all four sides allowed the choir to come and go, to divide into varying groups, as well as for Richard Greager and Horomona Horo with koauau and putorino which, played with the quartet and singers, surprised me by being pitched in tune with western instruments. The string quartet occupied the middle of the platform.

Jonathan Alver (former general director of NBR New Zealand Opera), guided the dramatic elements, the movements, sensitively and coherently, and the lighting, under Paul O’Brien, was both useful and atmospheric.

The words, as well as being in the programme book, were projected, along with graphic photos of the scenes of troops and trenches on to screens on either side of the platform.

The total impact was moving and unsentimental, and the music illuminated the words without artificiality or technical display, employing the unusual vocal and instrumental
resources with imagination and resourcefulness.

There had been no interval between the first half hour of the programme and the Requiem. The first half had included a surprisingly varied range of elegiac music, similarly free of affectation; Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir under Karen Grylls sang Purcell’s ‘Hear my prayer’, Messiaen’s ‘O sacrum convivium’ and Schnittke’s Three Spiritual Songs.  It was remarkable to find such common spiritual ground between the widely different environments of Purcell and Messiaen, and again in the charming simplicity of the Schnittke songs, sung in Russian; ensemble singing was exquisite, and while individual voices were certainly distinguishable, the choir’s involvement was absolute, creating an arresting impression through scrupulous attention to phrasing, note values, attack, dynamics.

In between, perhaps the most famous movement from Beethoven’s late quartets – the Molto adagio from the Op 132 – was played with a keen sense of its poised, profound emotion, though varying between deep seriousness and joy, casting a spell over the audience.

I dare say that this concert will stand as one of the most memorable highlights of this festival.


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