From time-to-time I encounter a performance that exceeds expectations. This was certainly one of them!
Sure, I was looking forward, as always, to a Christchurch Symphony concert; especially one that strayed from the usual standard symphonic repertoire, and which also included a newly-formed choir and a starry line-up of vocal soloists. But what we got from that orchestra, that new chorus and those soloists was exceptional.
On Saturday night Mozart’s Requiem blossomed in its full masterly glory. Right from the hushed orchestral opening, after conductor Benjamin Northey took a few moments to . . . well . . . just take a breath, perhaps, before embarking on this undertaking, there was a feeling of something special. And then . . .
. . . the Christchurch Symphony Chorus added its voices: basses, followed by tenors, altos and finally sopranos with an easy, floating and prayerful opulence that transported us to a spiritual and uplifting level that remained throughout the performance.
There’s little in the way of dynamic markings in Mozart’s score apart from a few basic indications of loud and soft, but Ravil Atlas had instilled a clear sense of imaginative phrasing in his singers with subtle, but telling, variations in dynamics, articulation and vocal colour. The feeling of a unified wave of expressive sound was simply glorious. Nothing was over-stated; nothing was done with affectation or showmanship; but the impact was infinite. And every one of the nearly one hundred voices blended in firm-toned service to the music.
The choir was seated on the stage behind the orchestra, rather than placed up in the choir stalls, and the effect, both aurally and visually, was all the more potent, unified and expressive for that. Looking through the list of names in this specially formed Christchurch Symphony Chorus, I noted many who are known as soloists in their own right. Their contribution was certainly significant and an indication of the depth of vocal quality in this choir; easily the equal of similar professional choirs in other parts of the world. From the dramatic fervour of the Dies Irae to the heartfelt emotion of the Lacrimosa, everything about the choir’s participation in this performance was animated and compelling.
Mozart’s Requiem has always struck me as primarily a choral work, unlike Verdi’s where the soloists are equal to, or even more important than, the choir. But Saturday night’s soloists challenged that perception dramatically. And ‘drama’ was certainly at the heart of their performances. Mezzo soprano Bianca Andrew and tenor Jared Holt, as the inner voices of the quartet, had relatively few opportunities to really shine, but they made the very most of what they had and sang with clear and focused tone that projected effortlessly into the Town Hall’s spacious auditorium.
But the ‘outer’ voices (soprano and bass) gave us something extra. Bass, Paul Whelan, called on his extensive experience in opera to bring a real sense of dramatic story-telling to his singing. Again, nothing was overdone, but the authority he brought to the expressive contrasts of his part was impressively defined. From a sense of awe in the Tuba Mirum, not quite matched by Jared Holt’s more gentlemanly response in Mors Stupebit, to an inspiring sense of faith in the Benedictus, everything in Paul Whelan’s performance was delivered with sonorous tone and considerable feeling.
It was in that Benedictus movement that all four soloists demonstrated their superior artistic qualities. Although not written by Mozart (this movement is entirely the work of Süssmayr, who completed the Requiem after Mozart’s death), in this performance the music emerged as being no less masterful in the hands of such committed and convincing solo singers.
However fine the quartet were both individually and together, soprano Anna Leese made a particularly notable impression. Although I have heard her before, I had never quite noted the range of colour and personality in her vocal timbre. Every part of her range demonstrated individuality and character, all of which she brought into play as expressive armoury throughout her solos. Her entry in the Recordare, to mention just one example, was breathtakingly beautiful as well as heartmelting in its prayerful pleading quality.
If I’ve kept the orchestra until last, it’s not because it was just an accompaniment to the vocal proceedings. The special, darker colours of this Requiem were a very prominent feature of the orchestra’s playing. The beautifully phrased clarinet and bassoon timbres (the only wind instruments in this work) and richly sonorous trombones made a special contribution, while the fiery string playing in the Dies Irae was both exciting and menacing. Particularly effective was the use of period-style natural trumpets set alongside timpani played with wooden sticks, together giving the work a very distinctive sound that made it all the more thrilling. And special mention must be made of Scott Taitoko’s playing of the spectacular trombone obligato in the Tuba Mirum, rightfully acknowledged at the end of the performance during the audience’s vociferously enthusiastic reception.
But all of the qualities and delights that I’ve listed above were unified by the unerring direction of conductor Benjamin Northey, who injected the music and its diverse components with an inspiring sense of drama, vitality and impetus that made the performance consistently compelling.
I should mention that the concert began with a notably articulate performance of Charles Ives’ short orchestral piece The Unanswered Question. The layering of hushed strings, distant solo trumpet and disruptive flutes, oboe and clarinet might possibly have been seeking some sort of explanation regarding the meaning of life but, as far as I’m concerned, its ‘question’ remains unanswered! . . . or . . . did Mozart’s Requiem answer it?
The Requiem certainly reminds us of our mortality, and I couldn’t help thinking that on Saturday, on the last day of a month in which Christchurch’s much-loved and treasured sculptor Llewelyn Summers died on its first day, and whose monumental figurative works are a well-known feature of the city and beyond, the music took on a special relevance in the context of such a distinctive performance.
On Saturday night the audience’s response could not be quelled until Benjamin Northey led choir and orchestra in a repeat of the Lacrimosa. Now, somehow, the movement seemed to project a message of joy and hope compared to the imploring and despair of its earlier context. In any case, the choir’s more forthright encore brought a very special night to an appropriate and satisfying conclusion.
Christchurch Symphony Orchestra Masterworks – Requiem
Christchurch Town Hall – 31 August 2019
Anna Leese – soprano; Bianca Andrew – mezzo soprano; Jared Holt – tenor; Paul Whelan – bass
The Christchurch Symphony Chorus (Chorus Master – Ravil Atlas)
Christchurch Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Benjamin Northey