Riveting performances by the Orpheus Choir and Orchestra Wellington of works by Faure and Rachmaninoff

Orchestra Wellington and the Orpheus Choir of Wellington present:

FAURE – Requiem in D Minor Op.48
RACHMANINOFF – The Bells  Op.35

Margaret Medlyn (soprano), Jared Holt (tenor), Wade Kernot (bass)
Orpheus Choir of Wellington (Brent Stewart, director)
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 3rd October, 2020

Under the circumstances of Covid-19 and its world-wide strictures, I’m truly grateful, along with so many others, to be living in a place where activities such as concerts of the quality of that which I attended in the Michael Fowler Centre on Saturday evening could even happen, let alone be enjoyed so freely and readily. Given in the same week as the NZSO’s inspiring “Eroica” concert conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Orchestra Wellington’s equally uplifting collaboration with a sonorous and versatile Orpheus Choir made for a week’s fascinating and rewarding diversity of orchestral activity. I admit to being tempted into writing an all-out notice of lament that this particular concert in the Orchestra’s “Rachmaninoff season” didn’t “go for broke” here in presenting a couple more of the composer’s choral works instead of Gabriel Faure’s beautiful but oft-played Requiem – has Wellington ever heard the Russian composer’s achingly lovely “Spring” Cantata for baritone, choir and orchestra, or his enchanting “Three Russian Folksongs”?  What a programme, together with “The Bells” that would have made! But one must be grateful at the chance to hear “The Bells” in concert at all, and especially in such a vibrant and idiomatic performance as here. Perhaps on a future occasion………

Here was, in any case, a fascinating contrast of compositional styles and idioms presented via a pair of masterworks from composers whose music, though not exactly contemporary, emanated from the same late-Romantic Age (Faure’s Requiem in its final form dates from 1900, Rachmaninoff’s “The Bells“ from 1913), even though each couldn’t be more different in its expression! Though the Faure Requiem’s performance here was never going to give the impression of a church ambience in such surroundings as the Michael Fowler Centre and with a choir of the Orpheus’s size, there was in fact a historical precedent for the numbers involved, with the final, augmented version of the composer’s work receiving its premiere in 1900 at the famed Palais Trocadéro in Paris, fellow-composer Paul Taffenel conducting forces numbering 250 performers.

Conductor Marc Taddei most thrillingly took the course of utilising the choir’s tonal resources for intensely dramatic effect, with the group’s music director Brent Stewart’s expert training and leadership evident in the singing’s control of dynamics and overall shaping of the sounds throughout.  Right from the intensely focused opening Requiem aeternam we relished the controlled honing of the words’ purpose, the “et lux perpetua” thrilling in its outpouring of light and strength, the “luceat eis” a more prayerful supplication. Everything was here underpinned by finely-wrought orchestral playing, with the opening largo becoming andante, and the strings’ counterpointing the tenors’ fervent repetition of the words “Requiem aeternam” – I liked also the almost fiery cries of “exaudi” immediately after the loveliness of the sopranos’ “Te decet hymnus”, emphasising once again the drama of the text’s contrasts, which continued throughout the invocations of the Kyrie and Christe sequences.

A smaller number of voices in a more intimate setting would perhaps have found even more flavoursome nuances in the Offetoire with the repetitions of “O Domine Jesu Christe”, but the “terracing” of these supplications was finely placed, aided by the delicacy and sensitivity of the orchestral playing, the string harmonies reminding me in places (just before the “Hostias”) of some of Vaughan Williams music, Faure’s evocation of “the insubstantiality of lost souls wandering among the abysses”. After these exhortations, how beautiful was the entry of the bass with his “Hostias”, Wade Kernot a touch hesitant here and there, not inappropriate in such a context, but managing to convey enough of the music’s major-key optimism to ease the burden of suffering so tellingly engendered by the music.

A performance highlight for me was the Sanctus, for a number of familiar reasons at first, the celestial tones of the harp, the purity of the women’s and the sonority of the men’s voices, the ethereal playing of the orchestra, all contributed to a sense of ever-burgeoning bliss and radiance, but which then burst forth with unprecedented glory at the introduction to the words “Hosanna in excelsis”, the horns  here for once casting aside all inhibitions and filling the spaces with golden-toned exhortations and resonances, the like of which I’d never before experienced in a live performance, the voices matching the full-bloodedness of the exultation – this was always a moment I’d considered special, but on this occasion one that infused me with incredible joy and excitement at having experienced a kind of long-awaited fulfilment of the music’s promise! – unforgettable!

Normally the Pie Jesu which follows straight on works for me as a kind of corrective to such excess as I’ve described – a cleansing, even a purifying kind of experience which straightaway takes me elsewhere, far from any festive or revelric scenario. I was therefore not a little dismayed at hearing Margaret Medlyn’s voice making such heavy weather of the music’s stratospheric lines, though I had thought it odd that she would be performing it anyway, as her voice has always seemed to me more suited to dramatic roles far removed from the ethereal delicacies of Faure’s music in this instance – something of an evocation of, in William Blake’s words, “a world in a grain of sand”. As it proved she appeared far more at home in the Rachmaninoff which followed after the interval – she was obviously going to always be the choice for the soprano soloist in this work (I still remember a stunning recital featuring some Rachmaninoff songs she and pianist Bruce Greenfield gave on a celebrated occasion – https://middle-c.org/2010/07/from-garden-to-grave-margaret-medlyn-and-bruce-greenfield/) – but surely it’s a voice that would always have been unsuited to Faure’s Pie Jesu? I’m only sad to find myself less than enthusiastic about a performance by a singer whose work I’ve deeply admired in the past, but in vastly different music…..

The serene opening of the Agnus Dei was but the beginning of a journey which took us through contrasting episodes of lyrical beauty (orchestra and tenor voices at the beginning), rapt communion  (those “Wotan’s Farewell”-like chromatic soprano descents at “Lux aeterna”) and blazing fervour (the “quia pius est” pleading from choir and orchestra just before the reprise of the very opening of the work, the choir positively incendiary at “et lux perpetua”!). Then, with the dark, throbbing “Libera Me” we seemed back in the underworld, Wade Kernot’s suitably dark tones secure with the music’s gravitas and direct focus, and the choir creating real frisson with the cries of “Dies illa, dies irae” over throbbing timpani, pulsating organ and louring brass, the horns again superb! The bass’s awe-struck but tender return to the final moments of  the “Libera Me” beautifully signalled a “coming through”, with the organ pedal at the end suggesting something of the abyss over which we had just been taken.

In a sense, the journey’s end came with the “In Paradisum”, the organ positively seraphic at the outset (though nothing I’ve heard anywhere matches the instrument on Andre Cluytens’ EMI recording at this point for sheer beauty!), the voices similarly angelic, the overall atmosphere quietly ecstatic, as befits where we’d been taken to. And yes, I remembered finding myself thinking at this point that it would have been nice to have heard those other Rachmaninoff works I mentioned, but this in nearly all of its parts certainly “did it” for me, thanks to all concerned. Nevertheless, I was glad of the interval’s “quantum leap” therapy, in preparation for what we were about to hear.

A pity we couldn’t have somehow had texts and translations on hand for the Rachmaninoff work, delivered as it was in a Russian translation by symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont of Edgar Allan Poe’s original poem, more of a transliteration, really, which gave an unsurprisingly “Russian” view of Poe’s imagery, dispensing with some of the repetitions and adding peculiarly Russian contextual images and ambiences – Balmont himself called it “an adaptation, more an imitation than a translation”. Besides Rachmaninoff’s own native pessimism of outlook, it all reflected a kind of prophetic sense of impending doom at the failure of the ruling Romanov dynasty to address the life-threatening issues facing many of the Russian people at that time, a situation that was to catastrophically resolve itself in 1917 with the Revolution. Though I’m hardly conversant with the language, I found its peculiar version of Slavic exoticism certainly made a visceral effect, thanks to sterling efforts by the soloists and the chorus, the SOUNDS of the words mirroring the characteristic textures of Rachmaninoff’s music throughout.

The work as a whole could be characterised as a journey from light to darkness over the four movements, and also a life’s journey from carefree youth to impending death. Equally it’s a compendium of human experience refracted through several peoples’ creative processes, with the composer tying the threads together in his music. So the opening “Silver Sleigh Bells” was a kind of magical awakening to a bright, crystalline Russian winter’s day, an instrumental sequence depicting something of a “Jingle Bells” scenario, the music’s scintillating progress halted by the tenor’s arresting “Slyshish!” (Listen!) and then (in a moment which equalled the frisson of the horns’ playing in the “Sanctus” of Faure’s Requiem) the choir broke the poised silence with a tumultuous repetition of the tenor’s single word! – nothing could go wrong from that moment on in the performance, such was its brilliance, depth and resonance of conviction! Tenor soloist Jared Holt I thought did an absolutely splendid job, timing the delicacies of his word-painting with great skill, while conveying terrific energy in his more declamatory utterances.The celebratory mood gradually evolved to one of reflections of “sweet oblivion” as the chorus atmospherically hummed its lines, with string harmonics glistening and eerily whispering, until, roused by the tenor at “Sani mchatsya”, chorus and orchestra built the excitement and volume towards a veritable tsunami of sound which broadened magnificently into a peroration of utter splendour, and then gradually dying to the merest whisper.

Ironically the first few measures of the second movement “Mellow Wedding Bells” featured the first four notes of Rachmaninoff’s “signature motif” the medieval plainchat “Dies irae”, one that grew in intensity before being augmented by the yearning choral voices, counterpointed by a dying fall line from the strings, one which evolved into a romantic meditation upon a pair of eyes gazing at the moon. Margaret Medlyn plunged into her lush lines with total involvement as the orchestral strings and winds conjured up an “Isle of the Dead”-like web of intensities, together with different bells adding their voices to the panoply of interlocking lines and single notes that characterised this movement – the soprano line rose to ecstatic heights when describing the “fairy-tale joy” of the bells pouring their holy blessing on the future. The “Dies irae” chant returned to inform the choral lines with thoughts of “a future where sleeps a tender peace” as the bells continued their blessings, leaving the last word to a descending pair of clarinets.

Following this was the “Loud Alarum Bells” chorus-and-orchestra scherzo, here another performance tour de force, right from the beginning – instrumental warning signals came in a crescendo of panic, before the voices’ conflagration of terror and confusion raged and roared, a “tale of horror, hurling cries into the night” in a frenzy of fear. The music’s sudden downward plunge into a brief trough of despair seemed as frightening and harrowing as the confrontational ferment which reared up again, the Orpheus Choir members displaying incredible energy and committed engagement towards realising the volatility of the composer’s writing. The sheer clamour enlivened even the Michael Fowler Centre, normally not renowned for its immediacy of sound, building up towards the movement’s end to a visceral assault on our listening sensibilities, but one which we wouldn’t have missed for worlds! A gloomily introspective lull towards the end was savagely interrupted by a brief but abruptly decisive payoff, the ensuing bruised-and-battered silence as devastating as was the music itself!

Completing the life-cycle, the survey, the picture, was the final movement “Mournful Iron Bells”, characterised by the poet as “the sound of bitter sorrow, ending the dream of a bitter life”. Here, Rachmaninoff used the mournful strains of the cor anglais to characterise the opening mood, creating an incredibly “laden” sound-picture, the singer (Wade Kernot) intoning his solo supported by an overwhelmingly fatalistic orchestral backdrop, the detailing here almost unnervingly vivid and impactful. Together, singer, choir, conductor and players brought about a heartfelt climax with the words “Vyrastayet v dolgiy gul” (It grows into an endless cry!), before the brasses hinted once again at the “Dies Irae” chant then brutally helped energise the music at “Someone shrieks from the belfry!”, hammering home the bass’s words, allowing for no hope – only terror, pity and hopelessness. After the singer’s final bitter pronouncement of  “…i pratyazhno vazveshchayet a pakoye grabavom” (slowly proclaiming the stillness of the grave), the music suddenly lightened, drifting into the major key and offering a concluding glimmer of consolation.

Together with his “All Night Vigil” Op.37, written in 1915, “The Bells” can be said to be one of the composer’s self-avowed favourite works, worthy of a regular place in the choral repertoire. The work, heard “live” was a revelation for me, and must have been for many others who attended. Grateful thanks are due to both Marc Taddei and Brent Stewart, the respective Music Directors of Orchestra Wellington and the Orpheus Choir of Wellington, for enabling a performance that will, I’m certain, stay in the memory of those who heard it as marking a precious occasion.

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