Far be it from me to recommend that a reviewer be late for a concert, or even worse, a no-show! Both situations were unavoidable last Saturday night when the scheduled reviewer found himself stranded by his car on the Eastern Freeway, and his guest (me) took over at the last minute. It was an unmistakeable irony that the offending vehicle was a Citroen and the concert entirely composed of French music!
All that aside, there was an unanticipated advantage in arriving as the choir was in full flight. This was Gloriana, Andrew Raiskums’ choir, several minutes into the Gloria of Poulenc’s Mass in G, which was (as the program notes said) “dramatic and animated”. As I entered the quite cavernous church that is Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Carlton, I was struck by the powerful sound made by far fewer voices than I expected. Still, 30 or so singers can make quite an impact, especially when they are so balanced and the conductor knows them well. I was to learn that Gloriana’s great strength is in having a choir composed of strong voices belonging to individuals who could be soloists but are content to contribute to the overall sound of the ensemble.
The aforesaid program notes alerted us to listen for particular points of interest in the Mass: its vitality, the “ringing” of the Sanctus bells, the appeal of Poulenc’s austerity of style. Given that the concert was named for the Requiem, and was undoubtedly the drawcard for most of the audience with its almost florid orchestration and instant appeal, the Poulenc seemed a brave piece of programming to match with it. So did the first of the Cantiques, Daniel-Lesur’s 1952 work, Le Cantique des Cantiques. I found the translated words a distraction, because some of them form the text for the Deller Consort’s landmark performance of Purcell’s My Beloved Spake, based on the Song of Solomon.
The quite austere tonality of what we heard was undeniable, although the Cantique had its own richness in the involvement of all singers and the challenges they were given. One notable soundscape featured the sopranos in Movement V, followed by an ecstatic-sounding dance. This was a worthy inclusion in the program, with its contrasts superbly delivered, but I, in common with most of the audience, was impatient for the second half of the concert.
It has become common for recordings of Fauré’s Requiem to be accompanied by his much earlier work, the Cantique de Jean Racine. Although it was composed when Fauré was only 19, this relatively short work is a fair indication of what the mature composer would be capable of writing. A small orchestra (strings, horns, harp) filed onto the stage, but it was the organ which immediately captured attention with its gentle articulation, hymn-like, of the melody. This work is beautiful beyond words (and as recently as last night I introduced it to a new listener, who I think would agree!) Of course Raiskums and Gloriana performed it faithfully; the men’s voices quiet to begin but soon swelled with the other parts, and all making the most of the contrasts and crescendos.
After this, the wait for the Requiem was almost unbearable although it was only minutes! The orchestra sounded about three times its actual size, yet did not overpower the singers. In fact the strong quality of the Gloriana voices, already remarked on, did much to counterbalance the sweetness of the melodies, and the lushness of the orchestration. Several parts of the work are built on arpeggio-based chords which give it a flow, but Raiskums also had an ear for the drama, for example in the Kyrie.
The Sanctus is worthy of mention, from the angelic harp to begin, to the balancing of different rhythms in the orchestra and choir, and the violin solo to end. The choir’s performance of “Hosanna in excelsis” was simply enthralling.
The Pie Jesu is often sung by a boy but soloist Erika Tandiono demonstrated a female voice can be as affecting, if held in check with absolute faithfulness to the simple melody and with bell-like clarity. Nicholas Dinopoulos again showed his capacity to understand a part almost instinctively, lending a warm strong baritone to the Offertory and later to a vigorous “Libera me”. But the point has already been made that this work is an ensemble piece first and foremost and so it’s true the audience were with Raiskums and Gloriana all the way. There was nothing to forgive and everything to appreciate from every single performer.
The final section, In Paradisum, “May Angels lead thee to paradise”, struck a chord with the audience. This had been divine music by anyone’s standards. All praise to Gloriana!