Those who attended the concert at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Saturday 26th March given by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus, conducted by Mr. Warren Trevelyan-Jones, were treated to a feast of choral beauty.
The first piece, Missa Ænigmata by the Australian composer Brooke Shelley, was beautifully suited to the acoustics and ambience of the Cathedral. Having read a biography of Ms. Shelley, which included the information that she has formed a band called Resonaxis that combines “metal and Renaissance music with organ improvisation by David Drury”, I was somewhat intrigued by what her Mass might be like, discovering it was a beautiful work with four movements. Her piece was commissioned for a 40th Birthday. It was to be based on Elgar’s Nimrod from his Enigma Variations and to “look like”: “a Palladian villa … totally lush with elegant English understatement, but with rich beauty, not wanting.”
The Kyrie began with a gentle start by the altos, who produced a warm, rounded tone. The entry for the sopranos was very high and quite a surprise. Again, the altos were stronger than the sopranos in the second movement, the Gloria. There was pleasing movement within the parts and dissonant 2nds were held very gently and securely so that there was no feeling of a clash. The dissonances added intensity but were never harsh. The bright start of the Gloria was repeated in the “Quonium” and the movement ended with a lovely diminuendo. In the Sanctus a very dense quality was produced with many climbing pitch entries between parts. It seemed counterintuitive to finish the “Hosanna in excelsis” on pp rather than loud exultation, but it was very effective. The fourth movement, Agnus Dei, also had a gentle opening, again with rich tone gently blending held dissonances. The famous Nimrod variation opening melody began the movement and quickly faded after some improvisation on it. The Chorus did an amazing job to expertly keep their pitch spot on in this a cappella piece with its difficult, but appropriate, harmonies. The composer was at the concert and received loud applause for her lovely composition.
The next delicious offering was an arrangement of Elgar’s Lux Aeterna – Nimrod, from his Enigma Variations, arranged by John Cameron for choir. The choir entry was a little ragged and the sopranos’ tone quality was again a little thin. They needed a more mature “womanly” sound to balance the tone quality of the other three parts. By the end of the piece, however, they had made up for their less-than-wonderful start by perfectly placing their final very high notes very softly.
For me, the highlight of the evening was John Tavener’s unaccompanied Song for Athene, made famous by being sung at Princess Diana’s funeral, but written for a friend named Athene who was killed in a car accident. It was performed superbly by every voice group in the choir. The gently held long pedal-note sung by the basses was seamless for the entire piece and had just the right volume to support the other parts throughout. When the Choir sang “Remember me, O Lord, when you come into your kingdom” I felt goosebumps. After the words “weeping at the grave” all the parts broke into “Allelujah” and it was as though the sun had come out. The final “Allelujah” sung by the tenors was restrained and gentle with a beautiful tone. This piece has been played and performed many times, but the performance by the MSO Chorus was the most beautiful that I have ever heard. It was a “tour de force”.
The final work was Fauré’s much loved Requiem with soloists Elspeth Bawden, soprano, and Stephen Marsh, baritone. The version performed was the 1889 edition and it is not a complete liturgical Requiem. Fauré chose the texts to emphasise the idea of rest and peace, rather than the fear and trembling of the “Day of Judgement”.
After the peace of the first three unaccompanied pieces, it was somewhat jarring to have an instrumental accompaniment for the Requiem – a much-unexpected situation. The instrumentation was 4 Violas, 4 Cellos, 2 Double Basses, 2 Horns, 2 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, Timpani, Harp and Organ. The choice of strings without violins gave a feeling of depth and profundity, and the use of timpani suggested underlying tension. The Choir sang the entire work impeccably with their usual wonderful control of dynamics and blending of parts. There were a few slightly ragged entries but by and large the choir’s performance was excellent. A very well-balanced blend was especially noticeable between the altos and tenors in the Offertory. This was a good example of the “depth” of the Requiem where only the altos, tenors and basses sing for the first 30 bars, followed by the Baritone soloist. Stephen Marsh’s voice has a pleasant ring and carried well in the cathedral, a few tiny errors seeming to be related to his not being able to hear the accompaniment very well. (At the end of the Offertory the entire choir was out by a quarter to a semitone from the organ’s pitch – due to not being able to hear the organ very well I assume. This seems to contradict my earlier statement about the choir’s performance, but most people would not have noticed.)
It was lovely to hear the organ alternating with the harp in the Sanctus, and the only violin used in the piece was a solo violin played by Peter Edwards with its own line shimmering above the voices in this movement. Before the usual thumping “Hosanna”, sung in unison by the men in the middle of the Sanctus, the sopranos sang their final “Hosanna” with a change of harmony that suggested a feeling of resolution. The conductor, Warren Trevelyan-Jones, brought the accompaniment in before the men’s “Hosanna” firmly, but gently, unlike the usual full-force crashing staccato chords. The accompaniment became gentler as the Sanctus progressed and ended very softly on the final sung “Sanctus”.
Elspeth Bawden performed the Pie Jesu with excellent pitch and diction and a lovely clear tone that carried beautifully in the Cathedral. It is a shame that the soprano does not have more to sing in this work.
The Agnus Dei was pulled back in tempo to good effect. Again, the choir sang beautifully and there were gorgeous harp phrases. At the repeat of the first phrase of the work – “Requiem aeternam” with its introductory single bar of 4/4 unison D’s, there was a hesitancy to start together, as at the opening of the work. The conductor often stretches out this bar, but the choir needs to see very clearly when to begin singing. Many an amateur choir stumbles at these two points.
Stephen Marsh again performed the Libera me securely before the choir entered “trembling” very softly. When the horns and timpani entered, the conductor kept the tone full rather than loud and strident as it is usually performed, although I did find the timpani a little overpowering. On the choral repeat of the baritone’s opening phrase the unison of all voices was excellent and the accompaniment more subtle. Mr Marsh ended the movement softly and the choir entry supported him and allowed him to be heard.
The accompaniment of the final movement, In Paradisum, was interesting and different from the usually-heard accompaniment, with two-bar phrases swapped back and forth between different instruments. I heard this, rather than the beauty of the sopranos singing their lovely line. The men joined the sopranos at bar 21 “Jerusalem” supportively. I found the Double Bass staccato notes from bar 31, where the sopranos sing “Chorus angelorum”, to be a little heavy given the meaning of the text. The end of the work was ppp and the whole work ended like a unified, hushed prayer.
Mr Trevelyan-Jones has trained the MSO Chorus to a professional standard that is to be greatly admired. His calm conducting brought out the very best in both singers and instrumentalists. It was so pleasing to see the entire Cathedral full. Given the last two years of COVID disruptions and the very sad developments in the world currently, people voted with their feet and wallets to show that we wanted and needed this concert with its message of calm, and peace, and hope. Thank you to the MSO for employing Mr Trevelyan-Jones to lead the best choir in Melbourne, if not further afield. Long may they sing!
Photo credit: Liam Hennebry
Jennifer Turner reviewed “Fauré’s Requiem and Other Works”, presented by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus at St Patrick’s Cathedral on March 26, 2022.