Fauré’s Requiem (Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus)
Lucky third time! For the past two seasons, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus has had to cancel its long-awaited performance of Fauré Requiem due to health restrictions related to the pandemic. Now, finally, on the third attempt, they’ve managed to deliver it to the vast edifice of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
The concert drew a near-capacity audience – well over 2,000 souls, according to one calculation. Still Australia’s largest church, St Pat’s was once considered the largest church in the Southern Hemisphere.
Since moving to Australia in 2008, conductor Warren Trevelyan-Jones has been director of music at St James’s Church, designed by convict Francis Greenway in King Street, Sydney. He was appointed Chorus Director of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in September 2017.
This weekend, Trevelyan-Jones joined his two backing vocals, so to speak, in the program’s opening work, the Missa Enigmata, by Sydney-based composer Brooke Shelley, In 2019 Shelley, who also sings with St James’s Choir, was commissioned by Dr Lincoln Law, Chairman of Friends of St James’s Music, to compose a work for his 40th birthday. He stipulated that the work be based on Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ variation Variations of puzzles.
The seeds of ‘Nimrod’ are evident in Shelley’s first moments missa brevis, a a cappella latin mass setting, minus Gloria and Creed, lasting just over ten minutes. ‘Nimrod’ bursts into full bloom in the last section, the Agnus Dei, whose last line dona nobis pacem (“Give us peace”) falls in an ethereal whisper. Shelley’s melodious, melodious choral writing adheres to the curator’s desire to hear something “utterly lush with elegant English understatement, yet richly beautiful, not lacking”. But Shelley’s music seems quite far removed from the lushness of the English cathedral tradition: somewhat pruned and uncluttered, it is much more modest in scope and ambition and all the more effective and touching for it. It deserves a place in the choral tradition of those churches that still appreciate the Latin liturgy.
After Shelley’s mass, the work that followed came as no surprise. In his choral setting of the ‘Nimrod’ variation, the British composer-arranger John Cameron took up the text of the Eternal Lux of the Requiem Mass and reshaped it into a short piece for double choir, barely four minutes long. (This is reminiscent of Samuel Barber’s unaccompanied choral setting of the Agnus Dei, based on his famous Adagio for strings.) For those of us familiar with the long, over-the-top sweep of Elgar’s perennial “Nimrod”, MSO Chorus’ performance seemed a tad brisk, but otherwise transportingly beautiful.
So also the Song of Athena by the late Sir John Tavener. Commissioned by the BBC and first performed in January 1994, it rose to instant fame when performed as part of Princess Diana’s funeral service at Westminster Abbey in September 1997. (Tavener is said to have been her favorite composer and many thought he should ascend to the position of Queen’s Master of Music.) Like almost all of Tavener’s pieces, it contains elements of the Orthodox liturgy that are dear to him, including the hum of the bass, the melodic twists leaning towards the microtones, the repeated refrains of the choir, “Hallelujah, may the flights of angels sing to you for your rest”. Although barely six minutes long, it took the audience into another realm of listening, unfamiliar to many but welcome to most.
There is no doubt that the OSM’s very large audience had been attracted by the promise of a representation of the Requiem by Gabriel Faure. Facing a small chamber orchestra, made up of 21 members from the OSM, the 90-member choristers sometimes sounded overpowering, no doubt due to the unfamiliar and very resonant acoustics of the cathedral. Other issues cropped up from time to time – the loss of consonants at the end of words, the shrillness of high soprano lines – but these were minor flaws overall. Otherwise, the blending of vocals was close to perfect, as were the inputs and care for diction. To this former cathedral chorister, nearly 50 years ago, their lines were delivered in perfect liturgical Latin. The contrapuntal fabric of the melodies was woven seamlessly.
Lovingly and effortlessly, undemonstrative conductor Warren Trevelyan-Jones has extracted these beautiful melodies from Fauré, that master painter of words and creator of memorable songs. Fortunately, given the location, there were few heartbreaking climaxes, although the horn did erupt at the dies irae I still have hairs on the back of my neck. The most emotional moments came in the most calm, assured and moving music. Sometimes I wondered if those moments could be further enhanced by reducing the chorus to a half chorus, but what would Faur think?
Within the orchestra there were special contributions from Peter Edwards, the only violinist who graced his brief moment in the limelight, and organist Christopher Cook and harpist Yinuo Mu. Otherwise, the string section, quartets of violas and cellos with a pair of double basses, produced a gentle foundation for solo moments by two vocal soloists, soprano Elspeth Bawden and baritone Stephen Marsh. These two young singers sang with endearing sincerity, devoid of lyrical Italianate cabotins. I look forward to hearing more from them, perhaps in lieder recitals.
Faure Requiem is a perennial favorite, guaranteed to produce a large and grateful audience. The MSO Chorus created a truly moving experience that refreshed a work that many of us are familiar with. As I left the cathedral on a balmy Melbourne autumn evening, I heard fragments of Faure’s melodies hummed and sung by members of the audience. Can a composer (or a choir) ask for more?