Spring Concert - Liszt "Missa Choralis" & Fauré "Requiem"
Lynda Chang

The pairing of two essentially understated masses may seem curious at first glance, other than the expediency of their common need for organ accompaniment. However, in the midst of this abundance of profound devotion, we were also blessed with four unexpected but totally inspired interludes – sorbets in the conductor’s own word – two within Liszt’s mass, one just before the interval, and the last within the Duruflé. More of these later.

Liszt’s Missa Choralis began the concert. We might have been forgiven for thinking this was a different Liszt from the one we were expecting – surely not the showy, high-living, womanising composer who had been fêted as the most exciting and technically accomplished pianist of 19th century Europe. It is possible that the double tragedy of the loss of his son at the age of 20 followed by that of his daughter only three years later caused him to turn his back on temporal excesses and revert to his own early preoccupation with religion which followed the death of his father when he was only 15 years old – the rounding of a circle.

The mass was written in Rome, where Liszt had taken holy orders. The overall mood was solemn, sincere and restrained - conveyed without decoration largely through chordal movement with the organ doubling the choral parts throughout; but the harmonic basis was nevertheless couched in the advanced language of its time.

And such was the reverential tone set by ECS from the word go. One of the many joys of the choir’s singing has always been its wide range of dynamics – from the thrilling fortissimo Kyrie to the pianissimo Jesu (Gloria) – often switching within a heartbeat. The declaration of faith in the Credo contained a world of contrasts, from the whispered marvel of descendit de coelis et incarnatus est, the tortuous chromaticism of crucifixus pro nobis, the joy of et resurrexit to the triumphant Amens – all faithfully delineated by the choir under Robin Kimber’s crystal clear direction. Blend and balance were always well judged and well contained – in all, a subtle performance of sensitivity and understanding.

The first of the interludes was a well-deserved solo spot for our organist, Edward Batting. Undoubtedly a hero of the evening, Mr Batting conjured an entire orchestra out of the humble organ to prove himself, once again, a magnificent and worthy partner to the choir. For his solo, he chose a work contemporary to the Mass – a lively Scherzo from a sonata by the prolific composer Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901). This was a moment of joyful abandon admirably executed.

Mark Nathan, baritone soloist of the evening, delighted the audience with a wonderful piece of Victoriana for our second interlude – The Lost Chord by Arthur Sullivan. Advertising as predominantly a music teacher, Mark gave a splendid account of himself as a singer and performer – with a charming stage presence and a lyrical voice full of colours and conviction. He also possessed that most admirable quality – a perfect diction where every single word was audible. His students would have a great deal to learn from him – lucky them.

Just before the interval, the choir gave a spirited performance of Bob Chilcott’s The Isle is full of noises – based on a line from Shakespeare’s Tempest. Singing a cappella and from memory, the choir shook off the profundity of the Liszt and took flight with this frivolous and airy song – it absolutely showed their vocal dexterity and lightness of touch. They clearly enjoyed singing it and the audience loved it in return.

The fourth and final interlude came later in the middle of the Duruflé. It was a reading of a very funny piece by Bernard Levin - that erudite, controversial writer - quoting Shakespeare in our everyday lives. Coming just after the deeply prayerful Pie Jesu, it certainly brought me down to earth with a bump, thereafter to return me to the equally contemplative Agnus Dei. I’m still in two minds as to whether this particular interlude was either appropriate or necessary.

And so to the highly popular Duruflé Requiem, composed in memory of his father. Divided into nine sections, this work displayed the same restrained qualities as the Liszt, albeit within a more overtly French harmonic idiom. Much of the thematic material derived from Gregorian chants and it was no mean achievement of Duruflé to accommodate these irregular meanderings within the constraints of a traditional musical score. All credit was due to Mr Kimber’s insightful conducting that achieved a seamless fluidity in this subtly powerful setting of the mass for the dead.

A memory to take away from the Duruflé was ECS’s luminous quality of sound, particularly in the serene moments. And thanks to the skill of Mr Kimber, the fortissimo sections, such as at the end of the Kyrie, never lapsed into high drama.

Within the ever-changing emotional temperatures of Domine Jesu Christe, an all-too-brief 19-bar baritone solo was delivered by Mark Nathan – a plaintive declamation and plea for mercy for the dead. It was answered by the wonderfully hushed sopranos, gently bringing the movement to a close. Even the exultant Hosanna was a celebration full of humility, as once again, the sopranos and altos brought the movement to a reverential end. Then, instead of a mezzo soloist, we heard all the ladies singing through Pie Jesu in unison – a profound expression of humanity as one. As if that were not enough, the use of altos, tenors and basses, providing a purely harmonic support without words for the soprano line in Lux aeterna, effected a deeply moving humility.

Libera Me was the most dramatic movement within this work. Although the basses began quietly, the music gathered pace and volume until suddenly, Mark Nathan returned, this time with an 11-bar solo, to tell of his anguish and fear of the forthcoming judgement day. The two short baritone solos were all the more pointed for their brevity. The traditional Dies irae made only a brief appearance before the tension subsided to, yet again, a subdued and moving plea for mercy and peace.

The final movement, In paradisum, returned to a devotional serenity; the massed voices ended sublimely, and it felt for the audience as if time were standing still. The final chord, after which nothing needed to be said, was an unresolved ninth – clearly Durufle’s gentle observation on the human condition.

Our guest reviewer Lynda Chang studied piano at the Royal College of Music. She is accompanist to Mickleham Choral Society and Epsom Male Voice Choir, a regular performer in chamber ensembles and an avid concert goer. Photographs by Clive Richardson.

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