Sunday, August 2, 2020

Sung and Played from the Heart

The title, the timing and the content of Songs for Humanity (Knox Church, 1 August 2020) by City Choir Dunedin were all spot-on – so much so that one could hardly believe they were chosen (as conductor David Burchell pointed out in his preamble) before the world-wide spread of Covid-19. What could be more appropriate in the midst of so many people’s trials and tribulations than to use music’s power as a balm and salve during this devastating pandemic, and to dedicate the performance of the main work – Fauré’s Requiem – to those “who have died and will yet die” from it?

Three shorter pieces of accessible music by living composers made up the programme’s first half. In Norwegian-born Ola Gjeilo’s Song of the Universal, ably sung by all the women’s voices supported by the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra’s strings (concertmaster: Tessa Petersen) and pianist Sandra Crawshaw, alternating slow and fast sections brought out the ecstatic, aspirational quality of Walt Whitman’s poem. By contrast, in New Zealander Christopher Marshall’s more complex Pastorale – a setting of Psalm 23 for soprano solo and men’s voices with specially arranged accompaniment of strings, organ (David Burchell) and percussion – the prevailing mood was consolatory, albeit punctuated by dramatic outbursts which tested both the choir and the soloist (soprano Caroline Burchell) to the utmost, as well as assistant conductor Mark Anderson on the podium. Then came Latvian Pēteris Vasks’ Dona nobis pacem for four-part choir, strings and organ (Johnny Mottershead) – a highly effective final item, where the mostly slow-moving music’s austere diatonic language provided a series of cumulative build-ups of tension and excitement before the peaceful ending, and where conductor Burchell – now back on the podium – achieved an excellent choral blend throughout.

In his hands, too, the concert’s main work, Fauré’s Requiem, received a most sensitive and stylish interpretation. The crystalline radiance of soprano Caroline Burchell in the Pie Jesu and the darker, more anguished tones of baritone Scott Bezett in the Offertorium and the Libera me were particularly noteworthy, and the choir coped well with the subtleties of the composer’s chromatically-enhanced harmonic language. The orchestra’s lower strings (Fauré wanted no violins except for a violin solo in the Sanctus) combined with organ, horns and harp to give unfailingly appropriate support to the choir’s flowing lines, with well-judged dramatic irruptions by the horns for ‘Hosanna’ in the Sanctus and the ‘Dies Irae’ section of the Libera me, and delicious arpeggios on the organ for the In Paradisum.

Beethoven inscribed on the manuscript of his Missa solemnis these words: “From the heart – may it go back – to the heart.” The capacity audience’s response to all the items in this concert showed how deeply they felt that every musician who sang or played  in this moving and memorable event did so wholeheartedly, thereby making a worthy contribution to the maintenance of true human values in a world that sorely needs them.

Review by Donald Cullington, 2 August 2020

Photo: Ian Thomson

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