Bach Choir of Wellington – Faure and other delights

The Bach Choir of Wellington presents:
Music for Easter

The Bach Choir of Wellington
Douglas Mews (organ)
Stephen Rowley (conductor)

St.Peter’s on Willis, Wellington

Saturday, 5th April 2014

Despite the “music for Easter” title of the Bach Choir’s recent programme, I would imagine that most people would have been drawn to the concert by the prospect of hearing a performance in a proper church setting of Faure’s supremely beautiful and perennially fresh (as it proved here) Requiem.

Quelling an element of impatience lurking within the recesses of my being at having a “first half” to get through before the “real” business of the late afternoon, I found a pew within a reasonable proximity, and awaited the appearance of the choir, organist Douglas Mews and conductor Stephen Rowley.

By the time the concert began, St Peter’s-on-Willis had worked its usual pre-crepuscular spell on the church’s performing-space, with sunlight streaming through the large window at the back of the choir loft, to suitably beatific effect – well, anyway for we in the audience, but probably not for the choir, having to “front up” to the full-on radiance without the benefit of sunglasses!  The thought did occur to me that had the concert’s main item been Italian instead of French, the latter course could have been adopted by the singers – possibly, to somewhat startling, Mafia-like effect!

All such fancies aside, much of the ambient glow had dissipated by the time the concert’s second half had begun, though that initial impression of “Heavenly radiance” remained throughout.  Appropriately, too, because the choir’s performances of most of the items, including the Requiem, had a similar lucid and beatific quality, making for an enjoyable listening experience.

It’s a common phenomenon for performers to “settle in” to the business of establishing a relationship with both the performing space and the audience via the opening item on a program – what Michael Flanders, of “At the Drop of a Hat” fame used to call “getting the pitch of the hall” – and so it proved here, with a cautiously worthy opening performance of Orlando Gibbons’ Hosanna to the Son of David. Once the choir had negotiated that hurdle, and Stephen Rowley had welcomed us to the concert, everything, including audience responses, seemed to focus upon things more comfortably and surely.

Purcell’s Hear My Prayer, O Lord, a setting of just two lines of Psalm 102, caught in its opening tones a lovely solemn atmosphere, the choir holding its lines at a challengingly slow tempo and making a good job of things – a short, but intensely-focused experience of sound and feeling.  Darker in tone and somewhat more complex in its unfolding was Venetian-born Antonio Lott’s Crucifixus, the opening measures rising from the darkness to a starkly-lit cadence. The voices nicely conveyed surges of urgency and anguish with “‘passus” (suffered), and then tapered into long, beautifully-held lines for “et sepultus est” (and was buried).

However, the revelation (so to speak) of the first half for me was encountering the twentieth-century English composer John Sanders’ Reproaches, a work which eschewed avant-garde harmonies and drew instead on traditional modes of antiphonal settings for these texts, mixing plainsong with harmonized sequences. We heard haunting, long-breathed lines of “reproachful” utterances, varied in character and spontaneous in effect, interspersed with more assertive men-only recitatives – a marvellously theatrical, but at the same time, sublimely “spiritual” result. The final exchange was marked, at the end, by eerie modulations and a far-flung, almost cosmic effect of words sounded over endless spaces of time and distance.

It may be heretical of me to say so, but after this John Cameron’s setting of Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the latter’s orchestral Enigma Variations seemed to my ears rather cosy and sentimental – and though the choir’s sopranos made brave efforts to reach their cruelly stratospheric highest notes, the outcome in places was more uncomfortable than uplifting. Of course one perhaps ought to try these things, but I would rather have gone into the interval with the sounds of any one of the other performances of the first half in my ears. However, ’twas but a minor blip on what was a generally mellifluous soundscape.

As for the Faure Requiem, despite the performance being a “streamlined” one (no soprano or baritone, and no orchestra – which meant, alas, no horns!) the results were well-nigh enchanting throughout. Apart from having what seemed a reluctance to let his instrument resplendently roar out that wonderful horn-call in the “Sanctus”, organist Douglas Mews did the instrumental music proud, beguilingly keeping those plangent “French” textures to the fore and thrilling us in certain places with some awe-inspiring seismic pedal-points.  One soon adapted to the organ’s refracted orchestral tones, and enjoyed without reservations what the voices were doing.

Stephen Rowley’s conducting enabled the work to unfold with a kind of natural outpouring of expression, as almost nothing seemed forced or too sharply-etched – only an unexpected intensification of tempo and tension at the words “Lux aeterna luceat eis” which came to a dramatic head at “quia pius est” gave me a start for a few seconds, until I realized that what he was doing at that point was actually working. In place of each of the baritone solos, the men’s voices in the choir provided well-focused tones which kept the line steady and true; and similarly in the “Pie Jesu” the sopranos sang beautifully, in lieu of a soloist, managing the awkward moment of the melody’s reprise with ease, and allowing the final “sempiternam requiem” ample space and rapt concentration.

A mere couple of details wanted slightly firmer treatment – a slightly ahead-of-the-beat “Exaudi” in the first part, a hesitant beginning to the “Sanctus” over the tricky, syncopated accompanying figures, and a too-eager reprise of the “Agnus Dei” by the men – but these were moments of natural attrition, in their way part and parcel of the perils of live performance, and as treasurable for their purposeful intent as were other moments for their accuracy and expressive power.

Perhaps the performance highlight in the Requiem was, for me, the “Libera Me”, begun by the men’s voices, with nice shaping from the conductor, and taken further by the women, sweet-toned at “Tremens factus sum ergo” and building towards a full-throated “Dies Illa, dies ire”, startling in its impact. A thudding organ accompaniment brought back a fearful “Libera Me” reprise from the full choir, after which the piece concluded with a slightly more hopeful rounding-off from the men. Everything was kept in proportion, and the sequences vividly characterized – its spirit represented well the performance as a whole, one which the Bach Choir and Stephen Rowley ought to be proud of.

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