Requiems and delights à la Francaise – Duruflé and Fauré

Choirs Aotearoa New Zealand Trust presents:

DURUFLÉ – Requiem
Bianca Andrew (mezzo-soprano) / Christopher Hillier (baritone)
Michael Stewart (organ) / Jane Young (‘cello)
Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir
Karen Grylls (conductor)

FAURÉ – Requiem
Jayne Tankersley (soprano) / Christopher Hillier (baritone)
Michael Stewart (organ) / Matthew Ross (violin)
Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir
Orchestra Wellington
Karen Grylls (conductor)

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul, Molesworth St.

Saturday, 7th June, 2014

Big and ungainly though it can seem, the Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul is a remarkable music-making space for the “right” kind of repertoire. It’s repeating something of a truism to suggest that most of this would be church or sacred music, though Wellingtonians were fortunate enough to experience, two weekends previously, a performance of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony featuring an impressively-augmented Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei. It was music that resonated most positively with the acoustic, which more than made up for a small loss of clarity with oceans of sheer tonal splendour.

Even more “hand-in-glove” a match of music with the venue was provided by the present concert, featuring two of the most beautiful choral works in the repertoire. On paper the idea of having two Requiem Masses butted up against one another in the same concert might appear too much of a good (!) thing – but each of these works, though having certain things in common with the other, makes a markedly individual impression on the listener.

Though both French-born there was little other direct connection as such between the two composers of these Requiems – Fauré wrote the first version of his work in 1887, one which was first performed the following year (other versions appeared in 1893 and 1900); whereas the much younger Duruflé, whose student years centered around Rouen, and the Gregorian plainchant tradition fostered at the cathedral school, completed his Requiem in 1947. Duruflé, like Fauré, produced a number of versions of his work, one for orchestral accompaniment (the composer’s favorite), followed by a version with organ and ad lib. solo ‘cello, and then a “reduced-orchestra” version.

Duruflé undoubtedly based his Requiem on the older composer’s in terms of structure – the text is largely the same as Fauré used, with the “Dies irae” sequence (used by Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi) all but completely omitted. The younger composer’s work is similarly non-apocalyptic, though both occasionally allow moments of anxiety and fear to darken and dramatize the textures, albeit briefly (Duruflé’s “moments” are a tad more explicit than those of Fauré’s).

Where the composers part company is with their compositional style – though Fauré drew inspiration from Gregorian plainchant in the Mass’s recitative-like moments, his work is late-Romantic in its expression of melody and harmony – for instance, I love the unashamed tribute made to the Wagner of Die Walkure at the beginning of the Lux aeterna, following the Agnus Dei.

Duruflé, on the other hand, drew his inspiration from his early studies of plainchant, incorporating into each section of his work corresponding chant-like sequences from the sung Latin Mass for the Dead, and building on these figurations with harmonies and extended melismas, though nothing too florid or wide-ranging. The work to my ears sounded paradoxically at once more modern and yet older than Fauré’s – and as such, the two pieces made well-nigh perfect and complementary companions.

For the performance of Duruflé’s work conductor Karen Grylls judiciously opted for the organ-accompanied version (with ad.lib.’cello obbligato during the Pie Jesu movement). Presented alongside Fauré’s particular version of HIS work which featured an ensemble with strings and brass as well as organ, I thought the contrast between the two sound-worlds was stunning, and worked entirely in favour of each piece’s distinctive character.

From the outset of the Duruflé, the superb focus of the Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir was evident, their tones set off to perfection by the brilliant playing of organist Michael Stewart. But it seemed the opening Requiem was more floated by the choir than sung, an impression which in various places throughout the work returned, shining and glistening like silver-tapestried thread.

After a radiant Kyrie, the music darkened, and the vocal lines beseeched, calmly at first, but then with great urgency and impassioned attack, the organ excitingly joining the fray – “Libera eas de ore leonis!” (Save them from the lion’s jaws!), with the baritone soloist, Christopher Hillier, sonorously raising his voice for the “Hostias” by way of offering sacrifice and prayer for the sake of the departed souls – wonderful, heart-stopping moments!

I loved the rippling organ and the angelic tones of the opening of the Sanctus, relishing all the more the gloriously contrasting irruptions of energy for the “Hosannas”, and then savoring to the full the rapt, devotional ardor of the Pie Jesu which followed, mezzo-soprano Bianca Andrew and ‘cellist Jane Young singing and playing like angels to Michael Stewart’s beautifully-sculptured accompaniment.

How beautifully the choir managed the wordless accompaniments to the melodic lines in Lux aeterna – the singing and playing quite superbly setting off the sudden angst brought about by the organ’s clarion call, followed by the choir’s and the baritone soloist’s strongly-projected agitations. Though brief, the appearance of “Dies illa, dies irae” caused further choral combustion, culminating in one of the few Fauré-like moments in Duruflé’s work, the heart-easing, melodic unison reiteration by the choir of the “Libera Me”.

And what a wondrously rarefied, even austere world is that of the In Paradisum  sequence! – such a marked contrast to the older composer’s setting! – something that here evoked the “unknown” so potently that we sat in the midst of its wonderment for a long time afterwards before marking our appreciation of the performance with rapturous applause.

I confess to experiencing some anxious moments myself during the interval, arising from sudden doubts and fears regarding the Fauré work’s pending performance. By this time I’d noticed that the printed programme, through some vagary or other, had omitted the names of several of the orchestral musicians, including those of the horn players! My relief was great when, in due course, the instruments in question made their appearance – the thing was, the two previous performances of the work I’d heard recently were both with organ-only accompaniment, and….. yes, I expect organists will possibly sniff and smart at my none-too-subtle inflections surrounding that “organ-only” usage – but anyhow, I’ll further explain below…..

Karen Grylls chose the 1893 version of the work to perform, here – the composer’s original 1887 version featured only five movements (no Offertory and no Libera Me),  later adding the extra movements and a baritone soloist. There has over the years been a degree of “creative agglomeration” practiced upon this work in performance, the situation due partly to the later, 1900 edition of the score which featured an extended orchestration entrusted by Fauré to one of his pupils, and which, according to choral-conducting doyen John Rutter, is filled with both printers’ and editorial errors.

But here we were, about to hear an authentic performing edition which called for a goodly number of instrumentalists on the performing platform – including horns, and also a solo violinist! – along with the choir, soloists and conductor, and the organist ready in the loft. The opening was spaciously and dramatically sounded, with the silences “surging softly backwards” after each cadential pause. At first I though the orchestral tones too fulsome for the voices – the tenors had a lovely plangency which seemed, however, in danger of being submerged within the acoustic in places, but things seemed to refocus with the great cries of “Exaudi” and “Orationem” – and thereafter it seemed as if I could hear everything.

Gorgeous string tones introduced the tenors and altos duetting at “O Domine”, making a lovely sound and building each repetition of the opening words upwards and towards the string modulations which prepared the way for the baritone’s entry with “Hostias”. Christopher Hillier here wasn’t particularly honeyed in tone, but his voice was perhaps instead more appropriately textured with vibrant strands of supplication. And the choir’s reprise of “O Domine” would, I swear, have melted hearts of stone with such celestial ascending lines.

Came the Sanctus, and with it, for me, one of the work’s great moments, but to my ears invariably and frustratingly muted whenever the performance is simply organ-accompanied – yes, you’ve guessed it! – those great horn fanfares which introduce and reaffirm the “Hosannas”! Well I have to register some disappointment mingled in with my delight, here, as I thought Karen Grylls didn’t encourage the horn-players to sufficiently roar out their notes with truly joyous exuberance! The singing was splendid, though, short of an “Anything you can do I can do better” kind of scenario, I simply wanted ALL of the sounds to ring out through those vast spaces, just for a few seconds! I should mention the solo violin playing as well, Matthew Ross’s instrument making a suitably sweet-toned sound, the intonation not entirely blemish-free, but certainly creating the desired cherubic effect.

Another truly memorable sequence was the Pie Jesu (so different an effect to that of Duruflé’s setting!) – of course, nothing less than the voice of an angel was needed, and soprano Jayne Tankersley touched many of those tingling stratospheric places with some beautifully-floated sounds. Though perhaps not ideally serene, not as uniformly pure of tone as I expected, she nevertheless inflected the words with real feeling – but I did wonder, having enjoyed her vibrant, engaging (and invariably spectacular) singing of Monteverdi’s music so much over the years, whether her voice as naturally took to this music’s cooler, far less-inflected lines of relatively chaste expression.

The Agnus Dei and the Libera Me have the work’s darkest moments – Karen Grylls got a particularly wonderful “floating” response from her voices for the Lux aeterna  sequence, though I would have liked the horns once again to have interjected in more baleful tones just before the reprise of the opening Requiem aeternam. Christopher Hillier’s lean, forceful tones had an almost operatic intensity when delivering his Libera me, one which conductor and singers took up with ferment and gusto at the words “Dies illa, dies irae”, and carried over to the reprise of “Libera Me”, horns beautifully darkening the voices’ beseeching phrase-ends, before allowing the baritone to join in with a final, exhausted plea for deliverance.

Having done with anxieties and fears, voices, solo violin and organ then turned their attentions, most affectingly, towards the prospect of eternal bliss, with the beautiful In Paradisum – and though I wanted organist Michael Stewart’s arpeggiated accompanying figurations to oscillate rather more brightly and forthrightly, the singing was appropriately angelic, and the soaring solo violin line a delight. The sounds of the voices blended with the instrumental tones towards the end and then with the eternal silences…….as with the Duruflé’s conclusion, we registered the gradual disappearance of those affecting sounds before showing our appreciation of the music and performers’ efforts – including those of Michael Stewart, who was somehow stranded on one side of the platform at the end, away from all of the others!

But very, very great credit to conductor Karen Grylls and to her soloists, instrumentalists and singers, for a splendid  and long-to-be-remembered pair of performances!






















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