Admirable exploration of challenging Purcell and gorgeous Fauré from Nota Bene

Nota Bene, the Chiesa Ensemble and Tom Chatterton (organ), directed by Peter Walls

Fauré: Requiem
Puccini: Requiem
Purcell: ‘O sing unto the Lord’; Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary; ‘Rejoice in the Lord Alway’

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Sunday 8 July, 3 pm

Looking back through Middle C’s archive, I was a little surprised to discover that Nota Bene was founded as far back as 2004; we have reviewed 18 of their concerts since our beginning in 2008. It was founded by Christine Argyle, and has been under the direction of several others since, including, quite often, Peter Walls.

Concerts are usually constructed round a theme, and the theme here was death and the celebration of death. Such a theme lends itself to a huge variety of approaches and differences of style dictated by history. The juxtaposition of funeral music by Purcell and that of Puccini and Fauré might have seemed eccentric; but that merely means that the rewards for finding and thinking up connections between disparate things are so much more intriguing. It might encourage making judgements too, and I think the second half, largely dominated by the Fauré Requiem, was the more successful.

It is hard to say whether one should be more admiring of performances of music that are delivered with ease, where all the circumstances come together happily, than of music that is intrinsically challenging, the idiom and style harder to come to terms with; is being tackled by voices few of which are professional, and perhaps in a space, the Catholic basilica, in which every little flaw, lack of balance and ensemble weakness can be heard.

It is hard to say whether one should be more admiring of performances of music that are delivered with ease, where all the circumstances come together happily, than of music that is intrinsically challenging, the idiom, technical demands and style harder to come to terms with.

Purcell: O Sing unto the Lord 
The latter environment affected the three anthems by Purcell. O Sing unto the Lord is described as a “relatively late work” – 1688: he was an elderly 29 years old! And it’s one of his literally hundreds of choral works; making Purcell’s achievement more comparable to Schubert’s or Mozart’s, also dead by age 35, than to any other composer.

Its elaborate orchestral introduction was most impressive, not perhaps as an exercise in authentic Baroque musical performance, but certainly for its beautiful warmth and period feeling, and sheer opulence, placing him clearly in a position equal to the finest Continental composers of his time.

I had intended to get to the pre-concert talk but a family matters intervened. My own reading of the usual sources (e.g. notes to a Hyperion recording) indicate that the prominent bass voice and the scoring for a large string orchestra suggest a special occasion. The same source remarks that “Although the writing is overtly celebratory, behind it is the deliciously wistful quality”, and this indeed was the character of the performance.

After a long and fairly elaborate orchestral prelude, the imposing, solo bass episode, sung by Daniel O’Connor, unusually rotund and well projected, was a striking start to the anthem proper. Then the body of the choir entered with ‘Alleluia’, in contrasting triple time. After another orchestral section, the choir created markedly distinct contrapuntal lines in their singing of the rest of the first verse. It is clearly hard to capture properly, in spite of the triplet rhythm one might have expected to carry it confidently along. A charming duet between soprano and alto, ‘The Lord is great’, created another atmosphere in this constantly varying music. And a more subdued choral dialogue followed in the next verse, ‘O worship the Lord’. The formal variety continued with alternating phrases between O’Connor and the body of the choir in the final section.

I’m sure that it’s easier to achieve a smooth, well integrated performance from a larger choir; and one might have wished that performance by a small choir, probably more like what was available to Purcell, would produce more refinement and sensitive shading of articulation and harmonies; a big challenge that wasn’t quite met.

This rather overlong consideration has found its way into my description mainly on account of the remarkable fecundity and inventiveness of Purcell’s work. Nor did the following anthems present fewer hurdles or complexities to unravel.

Funeral Sentences for Queen Mary
Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary of 1695 (less than a year before his own funeral) was of course less ‘celebratory’; here again the challenges of this sophisticated music were audible, but the choir, sounding thin, faced with the task of creating a regal lament of high seriousness, really struggled.

My memory of first hearing this piece was at a concert maybe 20 years ago by a Victoria University choir, probably conducted by the then Professor Peter Walls in the Adam Concert Room, which impressed me, imprinting it in the memory; there, I may have been moved, uncritically, having no earlier performance to compare. Here I couldn’t help feeling the absence of a richer, more opulent ensemble, and that a rather larger choir was needed, or at least one that had been able to achieve more perfect ensemble through persistence and devotion, more rehearsal than an amateur choir can be expected to get. Perhaps it would have been better if the whole choir had sung certain passages for single voices.

However, here was the opportunity for the horns to shine and for the support of the organ to be heard, but I have to say that the long instrumental postlude cried out for the greater spiritual impact that sombre brass instruments might have provided. Nevertheless, there was sufficient musical power in this careful and faithful performance to be moved by the greatness of the music.

The third Purcell anthem, the well-known Bell Anthem, ‘Rejoice in the Lord Alway’, ended the first half. Such a different and obviously less deeply felt piece again employed solo voices quite extensively in the verse sections: Virginia Earle, Paddy Geddes and Shawn Condon; their contributions were agreeable and significant, even though a certain tentativeness again suggested inadequate rehearsal.

Two Requiems
It was interesting if not revelatory to hear Puccini’s truncated part of the Requiem – the opening section, Requiem aeternam, written in 1905 for the 4th anniversary of Verdi’s death. In a suitably pious tone, with organ joining the orchestral accompaniment, there were, naturally, distinctive traces of the operatic Puccini. The choir seemed better attuned to it than they had been to the Purcell works.

Then Fauré’s Requiem.  The rich opening chords from the orchestra presaged a performance that was faithful to Fauré’s original conception, and thoroughly suited the church’s acoustic (it was premiered in Fauré’s own church, the great Madeleine in the middle of Paris); it included the church’s main organ too, sustaining a prolonged pedal note in the Introit under the pianissimo full choir.  There was much to admire and genuinely to enjoy; consoling men’s voices singing the repeat of the words ‘Requiem aeternam’ were lovely. And the unaccompanied soprano moments in the following Kyrie touched the emotions.

The benefits of a fine orchestra were very clear in the opening of the Offertorium, and later, before the calming entry of sombre voices; and the tremulous solo from baritone Daniel O’Connor, with ‘Hostias’, followed by the reprise of the first passage’s choral writing, sung in exemplary ensemble, created a rich and satisfying statement.

In the magically spiritual Sanctus Anna van der Zee’s violin solo soared over particularly lovely high voices, momentarily disturbed by the dramatic men’s voices in the concluding ‘Hosanna in excelsis’, an episode that offered a very special emotional commentary.

The organ introduces the solo soprano (Daisy Venables) voice in the Pie Jesu, which was a particularly successful episode that in no way calls for larger forces than were available here.

Men, tenors only I think, sang the first section of the calm Agnus Dei, followed by the full choir repeating the first passage, gently becoming more intense.  One of the most arresting yet magical episodes, one that came off very well was the change of gear for the final lines, ‘Requiem aeternam’, switching back to the home key of D minor.

Baritone O’Connor enjoyed another lyrical solo episode opening the Libera me; and though we are told that Fauré avoided the punitive ‘Dies Irae’ which is intrinsic in the normal Requiem setting, a brief statement of it appeared, with horns at hand, in the latter stage of the Libera me.

And no matter how familiar the In paradisum has become, it too, with a more conspicuous organ accompaniment and the high soprano voices by themselves, worked its magic, certainly on me, and I’m sure on the entire audience.

While the Purcell pieces had presented certain difficulties, whatever challenges the Fauré offered were handled with the deepest sensitivity, quietude and conviction.


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