Imagine rehearsing a program of requiems through a long, dark winter, and waking up on performance day to glorious spring weather more suited to Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun. You might as well plan a garden party and wake up to rain.
In fact, there are worse places to be indoors on a fine spring day than the magnificent 19th century Gothic interior of East St Kilda’s All Saints Church, said to be the largest Anglican parish church in the Southern Hemisphere. Airy, richly but not morbidly ornamented, with light streaming through its glorious stained-glass windows and topped with a magnificent wooden, multi-vaulted ceiling, it was a beautiful place to sit and, more to the point, had excellent acoustics.
And, requiems notwithstanding, the mood at the Melbourne Bach Choir’s Sunday afternoon concert was more buoyant than funereal, it being the culmination of months of preparation and rehearsals by a community of committed choristers, a capable young orchestra, and professional soloists from the ranks of Opera Australia and elsewhere.
As well as giving Melbourne singers and audiences the opportunity to experience live choral music, the performance raised funds for the new Cancer Research Centre at St Vincent’s Hospital, with whom the MBC has also run a program that brings music students to St Vincent’s hospital patients, since 2004. In other words, the event had goodwill in spades, but it certainly didn’t need to rely on it, musically, because it was an excellent, often thrilling performance.
The three-piece program comprised Tavener’s Song for Athene, (Michael) Haydn’s Requiem in C minor and, after the interval, Mozart’s Vesperae Solennes de confessore.
Tavener’s Song for Athene (1993) is a seven-minute work for unaccompanied choir. Composed by Tavener in memory of a young family friend killed in a cycling accident, the work gained public attention after it was sung at the funeral service of Princess Diana. Tavener’s conversion to the Orthodox Church and interest in eastern musical traditions is apparent in the work’s occasional dissonances, alongside more recognisable influences of English and renaissance choral music.
There were some shaky moments at the beginning of the work, with the basses not always able to convincingly maintain the drone that underpins it, but the large choir – the program lists 88 choristers – soon showed what they could do in All Saint’s acoustic, rising to an impressive floating wall of sound.
The choir moved forward and formed an arc around the front of the pews for the rest of the concert, with the small orchestra and organ situated between its two flanks. The second and longest work of the program, the Requiem Pro Defuncto Archiepiscopo Sigismundo, was composed in 1771 by Michael Haydn, brother of the historically more favoured Joseph. It is steeped in the loss of not only his beloved patron, the Archbishop Siegmund, but also Haydn’s firstborn daughter, Aloysia, who died a few days before her first birthday, in the same year.
It is said to have influenced Mozart’s more famous Requiem, and, above and beyond their shared sound world of Salzburgian classicism, their similarity is apparent from the outset, in the walking bass line, solemn trumpet fanfares and doleful drumbeats of the work’s opening bars.
The orchestration is rich with horns and drums and the MBC’s young players were terrific, letting loose fanfares to open the gates of heaven. The choir too, very quickly showed that they had the power to raise the roof, if a little politely at times. The higher voices are very much bigger in number and definitely in force, with the bass voices underpowered in some key moments.
Conductor Rick Prakhoff set a sound pace for the work and once the soloists too had entered the fray it was time for the audience to realise it was in comprehensively good hands, sit back and enjoy the ride. Both tenor James Egglestone and bass-baritone Adrian Tamburino delighted on their first entries with gorgeous tone and powerhouse, clarion sound that resonated throughout the church. Only very occasionally Egglestone’s higher notes sounded a little pinched.
Soprano soloist Antoinette Halloran (pictured) is well known to Opera Australia audiences, in roles including Cio Cio San and Rusalka. Accordingly, she brought heroic presence and drama to the mass, although her pronounced vibrato didn’t always articulate the finer details of the vocal writing and there was some approximate intonation. Mezzo soprano Belinda Prakhoff (wife of the performance’s conductor, Rick Prakhoff) has a smaller voice than the other three soloists, but one with a pleasing timbre. She also employs a fair vibrato but occasionally was overpowered by the orchestra and in ensembles. But for the most part, the soloists were well matched and a joy to hear in their various duets and quartets.
With the Tavener and Haydn out of the way, it was lollipop time – Mozart’s Vesperae Solennes de confessore, composed for Archbishop Siegmund’s successor and featuring one of his most loved solos for soprano, the Laudate Dominum. This brought forth Halloran’s best singing of the day; I’m guessing she’s performed it many more times than the complete work. Her reading of it was jubilant rather than enraptured.
Again, the work as a whole received excellent commitment from choir, orchestra and soloists alike. The strings came into their own with some fine lyrical playing and, well and truly warmed up, the choir hit the ground running, although the contrapuntal writing again occasionally suffered from a lack of presence from the lower voices.
On the days before the concert, I’d been listening to a recording of the Haydn Requiem, on Hyperion, with big name soloists, choir and conductor. Yes, I don’t live in a cathedral, but I have to say the recording was no match for the acoustic and dramatic experience of a live performance – so, well done and thanks, Melbourne Bach Choir.