Capable and well-considered performances of Arensky, Rachmaninov and Cherubini by Cantoris and their pianist conductor

Cantoris Choir conducted by Thomas Nikora
Piano Trio: Thomas Nikora (piano), Vivian Stephens (violin), Lucy Gijsbers (cello)

Rachmaninov: Vespers (‘The All-Night Vigil’), Op 37 – ‘Bogoroditse Devo’
Arensky: Piano Trio No 1 in D minor, Op 32
Cherubini: Requiem in C minor (1816), accompanied by Mark Dorrell (piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 8 April, 7:30 pm

In addition to the advertised Requiem by Cherubini, the programme was fleshed out with the most popular movement from Rachmaninov’s Vespers (‘All Night Vigil’), Op 37, and Arensky’s first piano trio.

The Rachmaninov piece is the sixth movement in the 15-movement, hour-long Vespers setting, rather inaccurately called the ‘All-night Vigil’. Bogorovitse Devo (pronounced ‘djevo’) means ‘Rejoice, O Virgin’. It’s a short, gentle piece that introduced the choir in a beautifully quiet, religious spirit, an ideal way to gauge the choir’s ability to control subtle dynamics; the singers were mixed so that the harmonies emerged in a blended manner rather than in distinct blocks according to their registers.

I haven’t heard Rachmaninov’s Vespers in performance for a long time; the last may have been back in 1987 from Maxwell Fernie’s Schola Polyphonica. Perhaps Cantoris could put it on the ‘must do sometime’ list.

(NOTE: I have been reminded that the Orpheus Choir has sung the Vespers twice (at least): in 1997 under Philip Walsh and in 2003 under Andrew Cantrill. I may or may not have heard and reviewed those performances in The Evening Post – my archive is not quite exhaustive enough to be certain.)

Arensky’s Piano Trio became known to Wellingtonians of my generation through performances by the remarkable Turnovsky Trio in the 1990s. (Sam Konise, Christopher Kane and Eugene Albulescu: Konise gave up a highly promising career; cellist Kane died and Albulescu went to the United States, taking up a career as pianist-cum-inspiring-educator).

Arensky was born in 1861, twenty years Tchaikovsky’s junior, four years older than Glazunov and twelve years older than Rachmaninov.

At once these three players (Thomas Nikora – piano, Vivian Stephens – violin, Lucy Gijsbers – cello) captured the essence of this music, rather Tchaikovsky in character, yet strikingly individual. All three found a subdued unanimity quickly, in voices that were warm and legato in the enchanting opening melody, until a somewhat unduly assertive chordal attack by Nikora which disturbed its affinity with violin and cello. Elsewhere however the original balance was maintained, though in the Scherzo Nikora again produced contrasts with his colleagues, particularly in the boisterous runs. In this venue, certain pains need to be taken with the piano’s response.

In all however, this was a most rewarding performance of a gorgeous piece that deserves to be played more than occasionally.

The main work was probably the real attraction: it was for me, as I’d never heard it performed live though I was familiar through my recordings of both this Requiem and Cherubini’s later one for male chorus in D minor.

The choir’s discipline and scrupulousness with balance, tempi and dynamics, demonstrated earlier, bore fruit here. From the start, the choir produced a sound that was not only liturgical in character, but imposing as a somewhat sombre choral work – without solo voices, though sections of the choir were often used in a way that simulated the participation of solo voices. Cherubini was conscious that his commission by the French Restoration Monarch Louis XVIII to mark the anniversary of the deaths of his predecessor Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, was a serious opportunity. (They were guillotined during the short period of The Reign of Terror (1793-94) during the French Revolution). Beethoven famously thought he was the greatest of his contemporaries and this Requiem was played at Beethoven’s funeral. Though Cherubini, rather a conservative figure (read Berlioz’s Memoirs!), a supporter of the monarchy, had navigated his way safely through the Napoleonic years, life blossomed for him at the Restoration, and this Requiem was an opportunity to make an important gesture: his career blossomed from then on, becoming director of the Paris Conservatoire in 1822.

It is of course a quite splendid work and nothing is more impressive, even exciting, than the Dies Irae; considering the absence of the full orchestra for which Cherubini scored it, with important timpani and gong, this performance did pretty well. Mark Dorrell, a bit of a magician in the task of transforming the sounds of a piano into those of absent instruments, now like a fine string ensemble, now mimicking woodwinds; and in the Dies Irae, even offering something approaching timpani and gong. Though the lack of orchestra is usually a serious matter for any music scored for orchestra, since the majority of an audience is likely to have the sounds of a recording or an earlier full-scale live performance in their ears (even, I like to think, a less familiar work like this), a skilled and imaginative pianist together with an arresting performance by the choir can distract attention from a missing orchestra.

There is great variety in the work: the lively interweaving and the increasing excitement of voices through Hostias was splendid, reminding us, if his large gestures were not visible proof, that Nikora is proving a very capable conductor.   Sobriety was restored in the following Sanctus: staccato, accented and well projected, leading to the end of the Benedictus for the choir to build to a powerful dramatic declamation. Then the gentle melody of the Pie Jesu, passed around the various sections of the choir, might almost have been heard as a pre-echo of Fauré’s.

The Agnus Dei accounted for the last five minutes or so and here the choir moved calmly from arresting passages to those that were deeply elegiac.

If I understood correctly, the choir , following their 2014 trip to New York to sing at Karl Jenkins 70th birthday celebrations in Carnegie Hall, will travel there again later this year, with this Requiem by Cherubini.

There is every sign that the choir will make a fine impression.

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