The Festival Singers and Wellington Organists Association present:
Festival Singers / Rosemary Russell (director)
Paul Rosoman (organ) / Jonathan Berkahn (organ/piano)
James Adams (tenor) / Linden Loader (contralto)
VIERNE – Messe Solennelle / Suite Bourguignonne (exerpts) for solo piano
Organ works by Vierne, Becker, and Guilmant
Songs by Hahn, Massenet and Faure
Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St., Wellington
Sunday 9th September 2012
A glance at the programme and the list of performers at the head of this review will give the reader an idea of the range and scope of this undertaking – a fascinating, and, as it turned out, extremely rewarding concert.
Centred firmly around the music of Louis Vierne (1870-1937) the presentation included also organ pieces and songs written by other French composers. To begin with, organist Paul Rosoman seemed to put the foundation-stones of the building to the test with a resounding Praeludium Festivum by Rene Becker (1882-1956), from the composer’s First Organ Sonata, music that in any language would make a truly splendid noise.
It occurred to me that this was the first time I had heard the main organ in Sacred Heart Cathedral played at what sounded pretty much like “full throttle” – it was definitely attention-grabbing stuff, stirring and resplendent. I loved the particularly “grunty” figurations in thirds during the fugue, just before the reprise of the opening of the Prelude – all very physical and engaging.
Vierne’s music then made its first appearance of the afternoon with two works for choir and organ – an Ave Maria and a Tantum Ergo. Both stand-alone works, the first, a prayer to the Virgin Mary, had a beautifully seraphic opening, sensitively handled by organ and sopranos, and then featured the full choir bursting in for the second part of the prayer, the “Sancta Maria”. Then, the Tantum Ergo, a prayer accompanying the veneration of the Blessed Sacrament, inspired some finely-crafted singing from all parts of the choir, with the sopranos rising to the occasion at the words “Sensuum defectui” halfway through, and again at “Compar sit laudatio” at the end.
Paul Rosoman again took his turn at the organ, playing this time two of Vierne’s own compositions, both from a set Op.31 containing twenty-four pieces “en style Libre” – I found the first piece “Epitaphe” exuded a strongly Catholic atmosphere, meditative tones, reedy timbres, and harmonies exploring “inner” realms. This was followed by a Berceuse, curiously unrestful – rather “beefy” for a Lullaby, I thought, to begin with, but then sounding troubled, even angst-ridden, though it seemed as if, again in the best Catholic tradition, rest was eventually achieved at the end of tribulation.
Tenor James Adams was one of two singers who chimed in with heart-warming contributions to this concert, the other being contralto Linden Loader. Songs by Reynaldo Hahn and Jules Massenet were chosen by the tenor, and performed in reverse order to the program listing – so we first got Des Grieux’s heartfelt plea to Manon from Massenet’s eponymous opera, winningly and meltingly floated by the singer, and accompanied sensitively by Jonathan Berkahn’s piano playing. After this we heard the remarkable Si mes vers avaient des ailes (If my verses had wings), written by the thirteen year-old Reynaldo Hahn. James Adams’ performance of this seemed somewhat inert in effect to begin with, after the radiance the tenor gave the Massenet aria, but the words then seemed to focus more sharply as the song ran its brief but beautiful course. The afternoon’s second singer, contralto Linden Loader, appearing during the second half, brought a rich, velvety voice to two wonderful songs by Gabriel Fauré, the well-known Après un rêve, here lightly and sensitively vocalized and accompanied, and the other, Fleur jetée (Discarded flower), a more dramatic outpouring, singer and pianist relishing the amplitude of Fauré’s writing and putting it across splendidly.
However, for the moment – and keeping a firm focus on the music of Louis Vierne – Jonathan Berkahn returned to the piano to give us two attractive moments from a Suite Bourguignonne, the whole consisting of seven pieces. The “Légende Bourguignonne” owes something to Fauré’s similarly elusive harmonic evocations, not unlike a Barcarolle in effect, with a kind of “rowing” rhythm, here beautifully played, the rather sweet shift into the major suggesting perhaps a journey’s end? Afterwards, a bright and energetic “Aubade” conjured up rolls of pealing bells awakening the new day – we heard a few clangers amid the clamour, but all to great effect, as well as enjoying the piece’s coda, rumbling upwards from the bass and bursting into festive mode once again at the conclusion. Exhilarating!
Rather akin to a musical version of “tag wrestling”, Paul Roseman then took back the reins at the organ console, for a performance of a “Scherzo” from Alexandre Guilmant’s Fifth Organ Sonata (the composer’s dates, 1837-1911). Again the piece immediately caught the ear, an atmospherically “serpentine” kind of opening suggesting some sort of “dans reptilian”, filled with slithering chromaticisms, the creepiness relieved by a charming Trio into which the listener could relax, away from thoughts of “something nasty in the basement”. But a reprise of the opening also brought out a remarkable fugue whose different voicings combined with the Cathedral’s ambient acoustic to suggest the idea of antiphonal forces at play.
An interval allowed us to take stock of all these strands of musical impulse before bringing us still more delights – firstly, two exerpts from a work Pieces de fantasie by Vierne himself, played by Jonathan Berkahn (both organists certainly earned their keep throughout this concert!). To begin with came a graceful, if quirkily-harmonised Sicilienne, its modulations flavorsome, and with lovely chromatic meltdowns in the trio section. Then a lively Intermezzo brought out the composer’s awareness of what sounded like jazz elements, the piece becoming almost circus-act oriented at some points, with frequent pauses for theatrical effect! Incidentally, by way of introducing the item, music director Rosemary Russell had already made the timely point about organ improvisation being akin to what jazz musicians do.
After Linden Loader had given us her two Faure songs, mentioned above, Rosemary Russell brought her choir to the platform for the concert’s “signature item”, Vierne’s Messe Solenelle . Two organists were brought into play, Paul Rosoman upon the Grand Orgue in the choir loft, and Jonathan Berkahn playing the Petit Orgue, the latter placed next to the choir. Throughout the Mass’s unfolding the contrasting effect of these two instruments added colour, resonance and drama. A case in point was the opening “Kyrie Eleison” begun by the men, with dramatic interpolations from the “Grand Orgue” – and most creditably, the Singers were able to match the organ’s voluminous tones with some full-blooded singing of their own. “Christe eleison” made a sweet-toned, nicely harmonized contrast, throwing the creepily-returning Gothic-like Kyrie into bold relief, the sopranos bravely arching their high notes towards the Grand Orgue to do battle with its massive tones – spontaneous applause!
The Gloria’s jolly, bouncing opening led to some theatrical exchanges between choir and full organ throughout the “Laudamus te….Benedictus te…..” sequences, with only a lack of numbers hampering the ability of the men in the choir to float their lines comfortably, though the tenors in particular held on steadfastedly. Full-blooded, committed work by choir and conductor brought out grandeur at “Qui sedes ad dextram Patris” from a plaintive plea at “Qui tolls peccata mundi”, and nicely colored the energy at “Quoniam” with well-registered key-changes with each “Tu solus”, before delivering the “Amens” with much joy and plenty of vigor.
The Sanctus grew nicely from its men-only beginnings, the women’s voices properly ritualizing the “Pleni sunt caeli” and adding joyous energies to the ‘Hosannas”. A plaintive note was struck by the Benedictus, with the organ accompaniments distant and magical, before the Hosannas brought back the festive splendor of it all, the men contributing a ringing “In excelsis” at the end. Finally,the “Agnus Dei” was beautifully realized, sopranos really “owning” their utterances of “Miserere nobis”, and making something enduring out of the composer’s celestial harmonies at “Dona nobis pacem”.
Very great credit to Rosemary Russell, her Festival Singers and her organists, for bringing us closer in spirit to the music and times of a remarkable composer.