Cantoris Choir presents:
DARK AND LIGHT
JOHN RUTTER – Gloria
MAURICE DURUFLE – Requiem
conducted by Thomas Nikora
with Jonathan Berkhan (organ)
and Samuel Berkhan (‘cello)
St,Peter’s-on-Willis Church, Wellington
Saturday, 9th September 2023
Two markedly different but satisfyingly complementary works were presented at St.Peter’s-on-Willis on Saturday night by Cantoris Choir, conducted by Thomas Nikora. The concert had been plagued with difficulties, due to various people’s unexpected incapacitation for various reasons, but the show went on in the time-honoured manner, to everybody’s great credit under the circumstances!
The first half consisted of John Rutter’s “Gloria”, which I had seen and heard Cantoris perform before – in April of 2019, to be exact – a concert I remember had the choir in confident and vigorous form on that occasion. I’m presuming that tonight’s concert was affected by the difficulties alluded to above, though Thomas Nikora was able to steer his voices safely and sonorously through all but the most angular and demanding moments. Rutter’s three part work emphasised the joyousness of the text at the outset, Joinathan Berkahn’s organ-playing at the beginning setting the scene with a couple of majestic irruptions of sound and adding resonance to the choir’s opening unison “Gloria in Excelsis Deo”, I liked the composer’s differentiation between celestial splendour at the outset and the “more suitably earthbound” contrast with the humbler “et terra pax” , and also the jazzier return to the opening, with an emphasis upon the word “Deo” at the end.
Straight away the piping organ tones at the beginning of the next part reminded me of Christopher Smart’s cat Jeffrey, in Britten’s “Rejoice in the Lamb”. The voices rose with the words “Domine Deus Rex Caelestis” while the organ tripped merrily on, (in places the work almost had an “organ sonata with vocal obbligato” kind of effect!) before the vocal lines descended nicely with hushed tones at “Qui tollis peccata mundi”, including a “splinter group” of voices who had retreated to give an evocative “cry from the wilderness” impression. Together with the words “Qui sedes ad Dextram Patris ”, the sweetly-intoned “Miserere nobis” hauntingly echoed to the end.
The vigorous opening of the finale, underpinned by the organ, featured the “Quoniam” with its repeated “tu solus” acclamations of “You alone” driving the music on, the phrase tossed about the choir with surety in preparation for the build-up to the “Cum Sanctu Spiritus” and leading on to the fugue-like Amens”, the dancing rhythms propelling everything forwards, conductor and singers finding more radiance as the music proceeded, if also showing the stain of Rutter’s insistent demands in places. However, over the final pages of the work and concluding with the reprise of the “Gloria”. the voices acquitted themselves splendidly.
IN this world of two distinct halves the Durufle Requiem certainly occupied the darker side of the sphere as per the programme’s title, though the work itself certainly doesn’t take us to the same degree of Dante-esque terror via theatrical and cataclysmic “Dies Irae” sequences, as did both Berlioz and Verdi in their respective “Requiems” – like the Durufle work’s “twin”, which is the Faure Requiem, the scenario presents the idea of faith as the “ultimate answer to the mystery of life after death” with the concluding “In Paradisum”, a sequence not used by either Berlioz or Verdi. Durufle’s work also differs from Faure’s in that the composer sought to replicate the style of Gregorian chant, rather than invent his own themes, as Faure did. Thus we are conscious all through Durufle’s work of the influence of the ancient chants, giving this Requiem a unique kind of character, at once a timeless and a universal sense of origin.
A great opening organ chord! – and straight away the Cantoris voices drew us into a world that at first seemed more like plainchant than in Faure’s eponymous work, with the men’s voices steadily intoning the “Requiem aeternam” – a lovely effect was the women’s voices floating over the top, the voices coming together beautifully for “et lux perpetua”. The “Kyrie”, which followed immediately, sounded like plainchant which I myself could remember singing long ago at Mass! Durufle’s contrapuntal lines merged here into radiant outpourings over both Kyries and Christes. The “Domine Jesu Christe had a sombre beginning on the organ, the women beginning the “Domine Jesu Christe” chant-like tones before the choir burst out vehemently with “Libera eas de ore leonis” (Deliver them from the mouth of the Lion), then continuing with even more stress-wrought pronouncements – “Ne absorbeat eas Tartarus, ne cadat in obscurum” – (Lest Tartarus swallow them up and they fall into darkness” ) – and the organ going almost beserk with agitation as well! (those of us not hugely familiar with the words really needed the text at hand to follow what was being expressed specifically, though one of course naturally concluded from encountering other requiems that the scenarios being described were anything but sweetness and light!)….the women’s voices which then invoked St.Michael’s guidance did restore some order! – and their “Quam olim Abrahae” further renewed a sense of faith and hope “….into the holy light which once you promised to Abraham and his seed….”
The male soloist who then came forward did well with his “Hostias et preces tibi, Domine” (We offer to you, Lord), the organ plumbing the expressive depths in support – and several women members of the choir suddenly retreated further into the sanctuary and intoned from the distance their lines once again, before returning – an atmospheric touch!
The “Sanctus” so beautifully swirled into one’s hearing by the women’s voices, like cascading water swirling deliciously all about, with lovely organ accompaniments! When it came to the Hosannas the men did so well, their voices forthright and joyous, suitably inspiring the remaining voices to add their cries to the acclamations. the Benedictus adding to the swirling motions, albeit very briefly. With the following “Pie Jesu” a solo ‘cello (played by Samuel Berkhan) accompanied a soprano voice, a lovely melody shared between the two – very low for the singer at first, but the voice sounded freer and happier in its subsequent “soaring” mode.
A purposeful beginning by the organ launched the “Agnus Dei”, with the women’s and then the men’s voices taking their turns, then dovetailing the sonorous lines as the piece proceeded, creating gorgeous harmonisings as the “Dona Eis Requiems” were intoned, along with a breathtakingly lovely “Requiem sempiternam”. Falling organ note-cluster-harmonies then introduced the “Lux Aeterna”, again reminiscent of Gregorian chant, before intoning haunting single-note lines, interspersed with the organ’s improvisatory-like recitatives – the single note chantings suggested a possible air of finality and impending peace, one however roughly broken into by the organ’s summonsing of the forbidding-sounding “LIbera me”.
The men pushed the lines along what seemed a torturous way, assisted by the women’s voices; and the solo baritone re=entered, a little unsteady at first then finding his voice, with the most fearful of the work’s texts given tongue at this point, the men confronting the “Dies Illa/Dies Irae” warnings throughout the “no-souls’ land of the music at this point,.Finally, the choir grasped onto their reprise of the “Libera Me” with appropriate conviction and beseechment.
It was given the organ to wreathe from the uneasy calm the strains of “In Paradisum”, the voices tentative at first, and then with “Chorus Angelorum te suscipiat” (There may the chorus of angels receive thee) the music seemed to find its path amid the suspended chaos, and beckon all to follow.
Those of us who might have expected to encounter a kind of dutiful reminiscence of Gabriel Faure’s earlier work found ourselves at the conclusion of Durufle’s work forced to consider the proper implications of what we had just experienced – a masterpiece in its own right, forged and performed with some difficulty but plenty of singular and enduring purpose from all concerned……..