Cantoris, with Thomas Nikora, brings life to Faure, and Rutter to life

GABRIEL FAURE – Requiem Op.48
Cantique de Jean Racine Op.11

JOHN RUTTER – Gloria (1974)

Soloists : Erica Leahy, soprano / Morgan King ,bass-baritone  (Faure)  – Shirleen Oh, soprano / Viv Hurnen, mezzo-soprano / Ruth Sharman, alto (Rutter)
Cantoris Choir
Thomas Nikora (Musical Director)
Jonathan Berkahn (piano and organ)

Wesley Church, Taranaki St.,

Saturday 6th April 2019

Gabriel Faure’s Requiem, with its relatively intimate, and gentle, largely non-confrontational utterances receives frequent church performance by non-professional choirs in a version with organ accompaniment (there are various other versions extant of the work, two of which are scored with varying orchestral forces, details of which are too impossibly convoluted to even comment on). I’m mentioning this circumstance because I frequently go away from such performances feeling “short-changed” as to the vital contribution of the “instrumental” parts to the work’s overall effect. In short, I usually find organ-only accompaniments of this music somewhat pallid and unduly reverential, but which, I’m happy to say, wasn’t the case in this latest Cantoris performance of the work.

Here, from the beginning, we were made aware of the organ being a real “player” in realising the music’s expressive capacities, rather than being relegated to a dutiful accompanying role. Organist Jonathan Berkahn’s first, attention-grabbing chord made us prick up our ears at the start, establishing from the outset a kind of vital ebb-and-flow between voices and instrument, even if the player’s tones were momentarily (and uncharacteristically) too loud in places during the opening Introit, during the men’s “et lux perpetua luceat eis” (perpetual light shine upon them), blunting the contrast of the REAL outburst at the end of that section. That moment was, thankfully, the exception rather than the rule – and I was able to enjoy almost unreservedly the many different instrumental ‘terracings” of dynamics and colourings of the tones and textures brought out by Berkahn right throughout the rest of the work.

The choir’s tonal resources were beautifully “shepherded” throughout the Requiem’s course by musical director Thomas Nikora, with the individual voices often clearly audible, though always “complemented” by other voice- strands. And the voices often surprised with their capacities to give more and more, as in the repeated prayer “O Domine, Jesu Christe…” (O Lord, Jesus Christ) in the Offertorium (Faure, incidentally, adding an “O” to the original prayer’s beginning), its repetitions gaining telling weight and increasing urgency each time, the basses beautifully reinforcing the third supplication.

The bass-baritone, Morgan King, continued the supplications with his “Hostias et preces” (We offer unto Thee), true and solid, with the accompanying organ timbres here sounding so “reedy” and right. A slight hesitation marked the singer’s “Fac eas, Domine” (Allow them, O Lord), but apart from a touch of strain in his difficult ascent, he held his line steadfastedly. And what celestial outpourings from the choir at the return of “O Domine”, the sopranos making up for some slight obtrusiveness at their first entries, with some sweetly-realised “Amens”.

After a touch of “Ready, steady, go!” the Sanctus began, the organ notes rippling beautifully and the exchanges between sopranos and tenors accurate and sweet in their tuning, despite the few voice-numbers  – again, at the Hosannas, the sopranos soared truly and sweetly, while the organ mustered its resources to augment the mighty vocal declamations of “Hosanna in excelsis!” – I still wanted more organ “grunt” with the triumphant  horn-call, but otherwise the instrument was a worthy foil for the voices, who were giving it heaps! All most satisfying – one felt that one had certainly been in a “Hosanna” by the end!

The famous “Pie Jesu” (Merciful Jesus) solo was here delivered affectingly and truly by soprano Erica Leahy, the words slightly “covered”, and the organ here and there a wee bit over bearing – but the notes were truly and sweetly floated and held for our pleasure and wonderment, everything most easefully directed by Nikora. After this I thought his “Agnus Dei” (Lamb of God) a wee bit brisk – though perhaps he was wanting to re-activate movement after the “heavenly stasis” of the “Pie Jesu”. The tenors did sterling work, here, holding their line truly, the organ, though momentarily “jumping the gun” with the registrations for the choir’s anguished repetitions of “Agnus Dei”, certainly conveying in tandem with the voices the turmoil of the human soul in begging forgiveness for “the sins of the world”.

The sopranos kept their “held” note beautifully as the music began the slow chromatic harmonic descent at “Lux aeterna luceat eis” (whose motions always remind me of Wagner’s depiction of Wotan’s kissing his daughter Brunnhilde’s eyes shut towards the end of Act Three of “Die Walkure”) – we heard beautiful organ colourings of the textures as the music sank resignedly then rose again in supplication – very dramatic! A great outburst from the organ, and the Requiem’s opening made its reappearance, the voices confident and full-toned, the cries of Luceat eis” making a heartfelt contrast with he serenity of the organ postlude.

“Libera me” (Deliver me) opened with baritone Morgan King’s strong, focused voice, conveying the foreboding of the text with  great feeling, the choir’s tremulous responses at “Tremens factus” (With fear and trembling) leading to a tremendous outburst of fear and anguish with “Dies illa, dies irae” (That day, the day of anger), building their tones excitingly, and then just as effectively “hollowing” their voices when reprising the “Libera Me”, the organ contributing a suitably bell-tolling backdrop to the choir’s unison, and the baritone reliably completing the echoing supplication. Finally came the “In Paradisum” (the words lifted from  the “Order of Burial” by the composer) – a quickish tempi set by Nikora resulted in the textures bubbling rather than floating, but the effect was just as magical and celestial. I thought the sopranos “carried the day” here with their pure, angelic voices, aided by the lower-toned support of the rest of the choir, and concluding with their murmured replies of “Requiem” at the work’s end.

A popular “coupling” for the Requiem on recordings has always been the comparatively brief but mellifluous Cantique de Jean Racine, given here as a kind of first-half “epilogue” to the larger work. Written much earlier (1864-65), Faure named the piece after the famous writer, who, in 1688 had written a text in French paraphrasing the original Ambrosian-style Latin Hymn Consors paterni luminis (O Light of Light), the young composer’s efforts winning him a prize at the school he was currently attending in Paris. Like the Requiem, the Cantique exists in different versions, having been arranged with various instrumental acompaniments by the composer, including orchestral forces – here a piano joined forces with the organ to complement the voices.

I thought the performance quite lovely, the piece’s long-breathed melodies and gradually-accumulated waves of sound admirably voiced by all sections of the choir, the undulating textures supporting some impassioned moments alongside ever-resonating transparent textures, beautifully-floated soprano voices working in tandem with the deeper sounds of the remaining singers. I thought the singers’ chording towards the piece’s end especially rich and satisfying.

John Rutter’s Gloria I didn’t know before this concert, and I found it an invigorating and rewarding experience. I loved the massively-conceived, almost “Twentieth-Century-Fox” introduction to the work, unreservedly conveying the sense of something grand and mighty about to be visited on all present! The opening words, of course, spoke for themselves in this respect  “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!” (Glory to God in the Highest), the following “Et in terra pax” (And peace on earth) more suitably earthbound, humbler in expression…..both the sopranos and tenors throughout this first part of the music had markedly exposed entries into the “fray”, and each group did so well, everybody true-voiced and keeping their line under Thomas Nikora’s watchful direction, the altos coping especially well with their more angular version of what the sopranos had sung previously, at “Propter magnam gloriam tuam” (We give You thanks for Your boundless glory).  The return of the opening “Gloria” brought out what I thought a Walton-like vigour in the writing, more than a bit “jazzy” here and there – and concluding the first part of the work with a flourish!

Rutter structured the setting in three separate movements each with a specific character – after the joyous energies of the first movement, the second part “Domine Deus” (Lord God), marked andante, saluted the Almighty in calm, gently-expressed birdsong tones from the organ at the outset, almost voluntary-like in its direct lyrical appeal, while serving also as an ambient counterpoint to the voices’ devotional utterances, the men beginning and then joined by the women, in “Domine Deus Rex caelestis” (Lord God, King of Heaven). The movement progressed from quiet simple adoration to joyous acclaim supplication as the music proceeded, the organ moving through its “chorale” in tandem with the avian figurations – a lovely, atmospheric effect. Beginning with a second, and then a third “Domine Deus” which led to the words “Agnus Dei, Filius Patris” (“Lamb of God, Son of the Father”), the voices built the intensities inexorably towards a most joyous acclaim, contrasting the mood vividly and tellingly with the following rapt, withdrawn tones of “Qui tollis peccata mundi” (Who takest away the sins of the world). Shirleen Oh’s clear, steady soprano made a telling effect at “Miserere nobis” (Have mercy on us), as did the solo voices of mezzo Viv Hurnen and alto Ruth Sharman in duet, a few moments later, with “Suscipe deprecationem nostram” (Receive our prayer), adding to the raptness of the ambience.

Even more Walton-like was the third movement’s punchy opening, syncopated and jazzy, piano and organ rollicking along with the voices through the various “Quoniams” as the music drove irresistibly forwards, the music’s angularities setting the different strands tingling with excitement the whole while. The “Amens” began to build towards the inevitable climax, the singers sounding part-purposeful, part free-spirited, kept focused by their music director’s unflagging energy and the organ’s mighty presence! In what seemed like no time at all the “Amens” had crested the hilltop and proclaimed victory, to the delight of the organ and piano, everybody then breaking into a reprise of the “Gloria”, the atmosphere festive and almost crazy in its effervescent joy, the performance’s energies enabling the music to properly catch fire and leave both musicians and audience exhaustedly happy at the end!





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