Victoria Chorale: Nelson Mass

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Published: 9th October, 2017
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It’s unlikely that Joseph Haydn had Lord Nelson in mind when he wrote this work but he was almost certainly thinking about Napoleon, who at that time was threatening the composer’s native country.

Titled Mass for Troubled Times it reflected a world in turmoil, written at a time of intense fear for the future of Austria, whose citizens were not in the best of spirits. In 1797-1798 Napoleon Bonaparte was rampaging through Europe; he had defeated the Austrian army in four major battles, even crossing the Alps and threatening Vienna itself.

The Mass begins with an air of foreboding, but perhaps anticipating that better times might come, the mood gradually changes over the course of the work to one of optimism. By the time of its first performance history had indeed suddenly changed – England’s Lord Nelson routed the French at the naval Battle of the Nile, and despair suddenly turned to hope, even jubilation.

And so it is with what became known as “The Nelson Mass,” considered by many to be one of Haydn’s greatest works, which begins in despair and ends in joy.

The work was the centrepiece of the Victoria Chorale’s performance at St Paul’s with the Ballarat Choral Society and the Art of Sound Orchestra, conducted by Mario Dobernig, himself of Austrian birth. Soloists were Amy Moore (soprano) Sally-Anne Russell (mezzo-soprano, Robert Macfarlane, (tenor) and Christopher Tonkin, (baritone.)

Combining two choirs is always a tricky exercise, but in this case it was executed flawlessly and the whole performance was a triumph. The choir sang with fluidity, discipline and confidence, performing well within itself, without straining, and providing excellent support to the soloists.

Amy Moore and Sally-Anne Russell’s voices matched beautifully, especially in the duets, their voices soaring into the upper reaches of the cathedral. Likewise Robert Macfarlane and Christopher Tonkin gave excellent performances.

The evening began with a performance of Barry Connyngham’s Dawning originally written in 1996 while the composer was living on the Far North Coast of New South Wales. It is a further example of orchestral works that serve as a reflection on how Australians experience the Australian landscape.

Connyngham says the work is influenced by two of the meanings of the word dawning. “The first is the sense of the slow realisation of something happening, how we move from small images or vague sensations to a coalescing of the whole. The second meaning is, of course, the period in the day that marks the movement from darkness to light.

“In the work I also quote or at least give the impressions of the variety of birds (including parrots!) insects and other sounds of nature that accompany the sunrises that inspired this work.”

The original work was for orchestra only, but earlier this year Connygham revised it to include a part for choir; this was its premiere in that form, ably executed by orchestra and choir, under the watchful eye of the composer.

Every concert performance has its little gem, and this concert provided a sparkle of diamonds in the form of Johannes Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody opus 53. This work is rarely performed, possibly owing to the dearth of male choirs, needed to form the accompaniment. The Alto Rhapsody is a composition for contralto, male chorus and orchestra. It is a setting of verses from Goethe’s Harzreise im Winter, and was written in 1869 as a wedding gift for Robert and Clara Schuman’s daughter, Julie.

The text, with its metaphysical portrayal of a misanthropic soul who is urged to find spiritual sustenance and throw off the shackles of his suffering, has powerful parallels in Brahms’s life and character. A dark work and not a natural wedding gift, you might think.

The work, of only 15 minutes duration, is in three sections: the first two, in a chromatically dense and wandering C minor, are for the soloist and orchestra and describe the pain of the misanthropic wanderer. The second section is an aria in all but name. The third section, in a nominal C major, brings in the male chorus, which joins the soloist in a plea to a celestial spirit for an abatement of the wanderer’s pain. The third part of the Rhapsody has similarities of vocal and choral style to A German Requiem, which was written the previous year.

This performance was of the highest calibre, with a perfect understanding between soloist and choir. Sally-Anne Russell’s deeply moving interpretation gave meaning to every word and note. A recording of this work by Russell, in the peak of her vocal career, would be a wonderful addition to the catalogue.

The entire concert performance was of a high standard, culminating in a standing ovation.

Choir, orchestra and soloists immediately decamped from Melbourne and travelled to Ballarat where they gave a repeat performance on Sunday afternoon at the Chapel of St Patrick’s College.

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Reviewer Cyril Jones heard the Victoria Chorale with Ballarat Choral Society and Art of Sound Orchestra at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, on Saturday, October 7.