Orpheus Choir sets Wellington Cathedral alight with vibrancy, in Mozart and Faure

The Orpheus Choir of Wellington presents:
MOZART – Mass in C Major KV 220 (196b)*
FAURE – Requiem Op.48

Lisa Harper-Brown (soprano)
Alexandra Woodhouse Appleby (alto)*
Giancarlo Lisi (tenor)*
James Clayton (bass)

Richard Apperley (organ)
Orpheus Choir of Wellington
Brent Stewart (Music Director)

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul
Molesworth St., Wellington

Saturday, 30th September, 2017

Orpheus Choir Music Director Brent Stewart announced at the concert’s beginning that the evening’s performances were dedicated by the choir to the memory of Professor Peter Godfrey, who had died a couple of days previously on September 28th. Regarded by many as the”father” of New Zealand choral music, Godfrey was closely associated with both Wellington Cathedral as Director of Music during the years 1983-89, and with the Orpheus Choir as its Director from 1984 to 1991.

Appropriate though the Faure Requiem turned out to be for such an occasion, the work would have been something of a drawcard for concertgoers in any case, the organisers having enjoyed the great satisfaction of declaring the concert a “sell-out” a day or so before. But of course, this distinction was genuinely deserved, as the Requiem is one of the world’s most beautiful and best-loved choral works. Its companion on this occasion was a Mozart Mass intriguingly titled the “Sparrow Mass” on account of its chirping accompaniments during parts of the Sanctus.

Brent Stewart got a delighted reaction from his listeners when he made the declaration that we in the Cathedral made up “the largest audience EVER to witness a performance of Mozart’s “Sparrow Mass” in public”. Interestingly, the work was one I knew well, as I’d sung in a performance in Palmerston North as a student, many years ago (I found myself humming the bass parts of the “Sanctus” as the music tripped along, and marvelling how I seemed to remember them in particular as the music unfolded). Though I didn’t remember much of the rest of the work in the same hands-on manner, I thought this performance brought out the singers’ engagement with the notes and texts, the opening “Kyrie eleison” most satisfyingly stirring the blood with the choir’s beautifully-graded dynamic levels most richly and directly explored.

I didn’t remember from that previous experience of the work the cantor-like openings of both the “Gloria” and the “Credo”, with bass-baritone James Clayton filling the role in both instances. In the Gloria, it was difficult to clearly hear the soloists, as if the single voices were still battling to be heard amid lingering resonances from the full choir. I sadly fear that those resonances were the building’s own, and they couldn’t help but colour and refract both large and small interactions between voices. Having little idea as to where the soloists would be placed beforehand I chose from the spaces available to sit on the right-hand side of the auditorium, reasonably close to the front – alas, the four soloists stood on the opposite side, with the alto, on the end, seeming very far away! Given that each had material to sing of some significance, one would have thought they would have been given a central, forward position as a counter to the “rapacious maw” of that acoustic!

What I gleaned from the solo voices’ delivery of passages such as the “Laudamus te” from the Gloria, was that their singing was in each case accurate and focused, though varying in impact. Of the tenor and alto, I thought the former, Giancarlo Lisi, had the better chance to be heard due to the tessitura of each singer’s line, the alto’s part seeming to give Alexandra Woodhouse Appleby fewer chances to “sing out”. Both soprano Lisa Harper-Brown and bass-baritone James Clayton had stronger voices applied to brightly-registered solo lines, each able to invest their individual lines with greater clarity.

GIven the “generalising’ effects of such an acoustic, I thought that Brent Stewart and his choir produced amazingly varied dynamics and vocal textures throughout both works. Though Mozart’s work was styled as a “Missa Brevis”, there was nothing limited or small-scale about the music’s emotional range in places. A particularly telling example was during the “Et Incarnatus est” sections of the Credo, where conductor and voices conveyed such mystery and inwardness of mood compared with the outburst of joy that galvanised our sensibilities at “Et Resurrexit”.

Where the soloists were allowed greater space in which to properly “sound” their voices was in the lovely “Benedictus” part of the “Sanctus” – begun by the soprano, the dovetailing of the separate lines was winningly achieved by all, though Lisa Harper-Brown’s voice was particularly radiant. I enjoyed the voices’ rich and secure blending, marvelling as I did so how anybody could (as has been the case regarding this music) consider this to be the work of any composer other than Mozart – it seemed to me to have his unique “voice”, most especially during this beautiful interlude.

The “Agnus Dei” further demonstrated the musicians’ control of atmosphere and mood, the voices stressing the words “peccata mundi”, unequivocally depicting humanity’s self-proclaimed guilt in the throes of sin, and desperate urgency in the act of seeking forgiveness. From these dark moments came radiant hope in the form of a joyously energetic “Dona nobis pacem” – a splendid finish!

Mention must be made at this point of the superb organ-playing of Richard Apperley, here in complete control of an instrument that, despite its diminutive size seemed to pack plenty of punch, especially in its lower regions. (Most people will be aware of the Cathedral’s recent problems with its regular organ due to damage to the pipes caused by the November 2016 earthquake.) I recalled a chamber orchestra accompanying us in that performance I was involved in, all those years hence, though it didn’t seem to my ears as though much was “lost” in having an organ instead, thanks to the nimbleness and strength of the organist’s efforts throughout the first half.

I’d previously heard the Faure Requiem in concert with both organ and orchestra as the respective accompaniments, preferring the orchestra because of the colour and visceral impact given the music both in general and by various particular instruments. Coincidentally enough, I had a “performing” history with this work as well, this time as a timpanist, which of course partly explains my bias towards orchestral accompaniment! Faure himself never sanctioned an organ-only accompaniment, initially scoring the work’s instrumental forces to include harp, timpani, organ and strings, and in later amendations adding firstly horns, trumpets and bassoon, and finally a near-full complement of winds plus trombones!. He reportedly complained of a later performance that the orchestra had been “too small”, clearly wanting those colours and timbres to be heard.

In most instances involving performances of this work the prohibitive cost of hiring orchestral players would prevent choirs from programming the Requiem at all, I expect – but with organists of the calibre of Richard Apperley and Douglas Mews in Wellington, the prohibitive becomes possible with the use of organ accompaniment. As with the Mozart work, Richard Apperley’s organ-playing seemed at first to fully compensate for the orchestra’s absence, though as with other performances I’ve heard, the “Sanctus” didn’t quite come off as it always does with those wonderful, scalp-prickling horn-calls introducing the choir’s cries of “Hosanna in excelsis!”. I’ve always wanted organists to really “pull out the stops” at that point, and have never really been transported with the delight that I’m expecting, when the horns are absent. Faure was also insistent that the violins “sing out” their counterpointed melody to the choir’s opening phrases of “Sanctus” (he significantly amended the “solo violin” of the original version to a group of violins in later versions), though here, as with most of the movement’s detailings I thought the phrasings of the player amply represented the composer’s intentions.

Brent Stewart’s direction of his voices inclined more towards urgency than spaciousness in places throughout the work, creating a parallel undercurrent of tension alongside the “faith in eternal rest” and the “happy deliverance” of Faure’s own expressed intentions. The near-anguished full-throatedness of the singing in places such as “Exaudi orationem meam” kept us mindful of the intensities of human aspiration towards God, giving what I thought was a proper “edge” to the listening experience; and this fully-dynamic response to both text and music throughout made the performance a living, breathing one. This “squaring up to” the work’s occasional sequences of near-dissonant anxiety again enlivened the music at “Christe eleison”, and contrasted well with those moments of relief and relative calm in places such as the movement’s end.

I enjoyed the organ timbres – so ecclesiastically reedy and evocative! – during the introduction to the Offertory, preparing us for a series of invocations (“O Domine, Jesu Christe, Rex Gloriae”) from the choir, each more intense than the last, and superbly built up by conductor and voices! I thought the admirable James Clayton’s baritonal timbres at the “Hostias” somewhat inhibited-sounding at first (the singer was on that “other side” of the platform, which may have accounted for this, though once again I felt the acoustic “lost” some of the voice’s resonance in general), but his soft-singing towards the end was lovely. The re-entry of the choir with a repeat of “O Domine” seemed, along with the soloist’s quiet beseechings, to fully capture a sense of a plea from humanity for mercy.

When discussing the “Sanctus” above I neglected to mention a sudden lighting backdrop change, one suggesting to me some sort of of transcendent movement, a “bringing closer to God” kind of ambient progression towards a purer, more intense state of awareness, one that, if none too subtly applied, at least indicated that the music was taking us somewhere different. This continued throughout the sublime “Pie Jesu” sequence, with Lisa Harper-Brown’s truthful and accurate singing penetrating to the music’s core. I thought at first her voice not entirely “pure”, but became more and more convinced as she progressed, and especially with that “grain of humanity” which coloured her utterances entirely appropriately (more so here, in my view, than the ethereal tones of a boy soprano, which was what Faure originally had in mind, constrained by ecclesiastical edicts forbidding female singers!). Here, I thought hers a lovely, insightful performance.

From blue, the backdrops were suffused with orange, with the beginning of the “Agnus Dei” (somebody may, at some stage, explain to me the rationale, here!) – again, Brett Stewart moved the music with some urgency, voices and organ, after a lyrical opening, darkening the textures with deep, heartfelt tones, giving great and resonating emphasis to the “miserere nobis” (Have mercy on us) sentiments. After this came that remarkable sequence of downward modulations at “Lux aeterna, luceat eis”, music that seemed to come straight out of Wagner’s “Die Walkure” (Wotan’s sleep-inducing kiss on the forehead of his daughter, Brunnhilde), followed by a return to the opening “Requiem”, organ leading into the choir’s entry with strong and assertive declamations, and the choir excitingly raising its collective voice at “Et lux perpetua”, leaving the organ to finish as the movement began.

James Clayton’s singing of the portentous “Libera Me” kept something in reserve for his forceful delivery of “Dum veneris judicare” (When thou shalt come to judge), the choir’s tremulous realisation of “Tremens factus” (I tremble with fear) then leading up to the “Dies illa, dies irae” passages – the only part of Faure’s conception that approaches Verdi’s own “Requiem” in its agitation and vehemence. Here, organ and voices flung their sounds at us splendidly, the tones falling away in terror and uncertainty towards the reprise of the “Libera Me”, firstly by the choir, with an outburst of blazing supplication at “Dum veneris judicare”, then quietly pleading, along with the baritione voice, at the movement’s end.

After these projected tribulations and terrors, the balm of Faure’s overall vision reasserted itself with the concluding “In Paradisum”. Though the organ wasn’t quite as “pipy” as I would have liked, the playing kept the textures elevated, and the sopranos’ voices were simply to die for, here, with their radiant, angelic tones – so too were the richly-wrought harmonies of the remaining voices reinforcing those ethereal beauties at the very end, the choir repeating the word “Requiem” to lump-in-the-throat inducing effect.

Need I add, an appropriately sublime performance!

One thought on “Orpheus Choir sets Wellington Cathedral alight with vibrancy, in Mozart and Faure

  1. Alexandra says:

    Hi, please contact me. Tried to email you as you have misspelt my name in your review. Thanks.

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