In their second “live” outing since real concerts were again possible in Melbourne, the Australian Chamber Choir (ACC) and a small chamber orchestra acquitted themselves superbly on Sunday in a program dedicated to those who have lost loved ones from COVID. Coming a day after the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral service there was a certain extra poignancy and appropriateness.
The ACC are also presenting the program in five regional centres, and, as with the response to the pandemic from other arts organisations, it is also available for streaming until 1 June (see https://www.auschoir.org/faure-requiem/). The program comprises the Schaffe in mir Gott of Brahms, Tavener’s Syvati, and two Fauré works: the Cantique de Jean Racine, and his much-loved Requiem. No printed program was provided, but the audience was encouraged to download detailed notes and texts via a QR code.
These works were presented in the Scots Church to an attentive and responsive audience, clearly delighted at the opportunity to hear the ACC back in real life. Their support was repaid in spades by the ensemble. The choir has a bright but also often lush sound, their individual lines beautifully clear and excellently balanced. Douglas Lawrence’s no-nonsense conducting encourages rhythmic unanimity and an impressive dynamic range from his band of choristers.
The Brahms Schaffe in mir Gott, dating from circa 1860, is based on three verses from Psalm 51 and is a good showcase for his mastery of choral counterpoint and fugue. The tenors were impressively blended in their solo line in the first section, and the full choir finished the second section on a truly beautiful unison note. In the third section the choir wove a transparent counterpoint, again with the parts satisfyingly balanced.
Tavener’s Syvati was new to us, and a real treat. Like many of his works, it has Russian Orthodox musical roots; the text “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us” comes from the Byzantine funeral rite. Tavener wrote Svyati in 1995 as a memorial to the father of his publisher. It began with a quiet but insistent bass drone and Rosanne Hunt’s cello, both seemingly coming from nothing. The cello provides the “voice” of the priest weaving around a haunting choral melody. There were remarkably lovely moments when the cello takes on a soprano voice above the lower voice chords, and there was beautiful playing from Hunt of the cello rhapsodies between the petitions of the Trisagion. One sensed the musical equivalent of an icon; in the latter, one sees the divine through an icon, and in this piece one hears it. A moving interpretation.
The Cantique de Jean Racine was a quietly touching performance with lovely melodic phrasing and good dynamic range in the choir, and Rhys Boak provided a nicely balanced piano accompaniment. Here we noted that while Lawrence’s releases at the ends of phrases are exceptionally clear to the choir, they could occasionally seem a little sudden to the viewer, especially when there is little or no acoustic decay in the building. Written when Fauré was only 20, the Cantique already shows the harmonic richness which characterises his later work and proved to be an excellent lead into the final work on the program, his Requiem.
One never tires of the glorious melodies of Fauré’s Requiem, which on this occasion was the 1893 version with chamber orchestra, with the expertly played horns adding to the organ, harp and strings. Our only complaint was that, though small, the band sometimes overpowered the choir. The O Domine duet in the Offertorium between sopranos and tenors was a standout success – as smooth and unstrained as can be. The men had lovely moments too in the Hosannas in the Sanctus and Benedictus, the horns providing uplifting support. Oliver Mann and Amelia Jones were excellent bass and soprano soloists. Mann’s Hostias was consoling and lovely before the choir called forth in suitable manner dreadful judgement on the world in the Libera Me building to the Dies Irae (although Fauré’s movement is a lot less scary than the Libera Me in Verdi’s Requiem!). While typically sung by a boy soprano, the Pie Jesu was performed very creditably by Amelia Jones, her final top note delicate and true. A minor quibble was her pronunciation of domine as dominuh (but then many singers seem to have trouble with this final vowel).The Agnus Dei was delivered with plenty of drama from the horns and sufficient tone from the choir to make for a satisfying balance with the instruments. In the In Paradisum, the sopranos were truly the voices of angels leading the souls into paradise, and the work ended on a beautifully tuned and blended contemplative note. We and the whole audience left the church feeling emotionally and musically sustained.
Kristina and Bruce Macrae reviewed Fauré Requiem, performed by Australian Chamber Choir at Scots Church, Collins St on April 18, 2021.