DURUFLE – Requiem
– and music for ANZAC Day.
The Bach Choir of Wellington
Directed by Shawn Michael Condon
Sinéad Keane – mezzo soprano
William McElwee -baritone
Lucas Baker – violin|
Eleanor Carter – cello
Douglas Mews – piano & organ
Wellington Cathedral of St Paul
Saturday 22 April 2023
(Guest reviewer – Roger Wilson)
The Bach Choir, an important component of Wellington’s musical life for the past 55 years, is in good heart. Under the astute direction of Shawn Michael Condon the overall sound made by 50-odd voices is well integrated, intonation and the balance between the parts good. It was easy to see that the choir has been well rehearsed with considerable attention to detail, but it has to be said that in the notoriously cavernous acoustic of Wellington Cathedral of St Paul it was sometimes more a matter of seeing people doing all the right things rather than always hearing the benefits. A pity, because this was an enterprising and interesting programme. Were it not for needing the organ close by it might have been worth turning the pews round and placing the choir in the gallery against the west wall.
The first half of the concert comprised a selection of pieces selected with themes appropriate for ANZAC Day, remembrance of the fallen, contrition, a longing to escape the horrors of war, praise of the saviour, grief for the separation from a beloved, a reflection on mortality and jubilation at the vision of a better world post-War. Some of these works were very familiar, especially Elgar’s We will remember them, a setting of Binyon’s For the Fallen, and Parry’s account of Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar, others new to most listeners. None was more effective than contemporary composer Thomas LaVoy’s The Last Letter, a poignant farewell written by an American Civil War soldier to his dearly loved wife. The performance was much enhanced by the addition of a baritone soloist, William McElwee, which ensured that the all-important text was declaimed with a clarity difficult for the choir to achieve in the circumstances. Another highlight of the half – even occasioning spontaneous applause – was the fifth movement, Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus, of Messiaen’s visionary Quartet for the End of Time, composed and first performed in a German prison camp. The duet for cello and piano was beautifully played by Eleanor Carter and Douglas Mews who observed the difficult instruction ‘Infiniment lent, extatique’ scrupulously. In the preceding Parry work Lucas Baker’s solo violin also sounded beautifully in the space.
Perhaps less successful, despite the choir’s best efforts, was Tallis’ motet O sacrum convivium, anglified to I call and Cry to thee, where the clarity of the musical lines was harder to distinguish. Another living American composer, Craig Carnahan, supplied a wonderfully exuberant Armistice 1918, War poet Siegfried Sassoon’s Everyone suddenly burst out singing, to end the first half with enthusiasm.
The second half of the concert was Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem, really the only work for which the French composer is remembered. It was commissioned by the collaborationist Vichy régime in 1941 and completed in 1947 so it is also very much wartime music. The original commission was for a symphonic poem but Duruflé decided instead on a requiem, eventually dedicated to the memory of his father, but it might well also be for the fallen in World War II. A church musician all his life, Duruflé used a great deal of thematic material from the Gregorian chant of the Mass for the Dead, skilfully interwoven with his own harmonies. The ghost of Fauré and his Requiem with the whiff of incense are never far away. Both composers deliberately avoid the terrors of the Day of Judgment, such a feature of other Requiems, stressing rather tranquillity and rest, and the configurations of both French Requiems, for all their differences, are also similar, even to the apportioning of solo voices (Offertorium, Pie Jesu and Libera Me). Duruflé’s work, conceived for a large church, lent itself to Wellington Cathedral’s particular properties and such is his skill as an organist that one does not miss the full orchestral version. With its sinuous Gregorian lines, the choral singing of the Requiem, underpinned by the masterful Douglas Mews on the organ, worked convincingly in this cathedral, and the Bach Choir did composer and conductor proud. William McElwee took the baritone solos tidily and Sinéad Keane sang the Pie Jesu with stylish commitment.
This was an ambitious and imaginative concert, despite some reservations about the building, well conceived and executed to a good-sized audience.