The Perth Concert Hall provided a fitting setting in Holy Week for the performance of the Duruflé Requiem and Bach’s Easter Oratorio, with St George’s Cathedral Consort accompanied by a reduced West Australian Symphony Orchestra directed by Joseph Nolan.

Joseph Nolan conducting members of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra

The Duruflé Requiem has a well-crafted flowing modal style. Regarded as an organ pedagogue, Maurice Duruflé published only 11 works. This composition was premiered in 1947 using the Latin texts of the Requiem Mass, omitting the Dies Irae. The overall mood is calm and meditative, with intermittent bursts of drama reminding us of the message in the Mass requesting repose for the soul. Duruflé possessed an unparalleled understanding of harmony and Gregorian Chant. Together with the irregular pulse of the vocal writing this produces an almost mesmeric vocal line. Unlike the Fauré Requiem and despite its rare grace and beauty, the harmonic writing in the score might initially be considered unappealing, but the haunting feel of the work demands further listening.

In this performance, we heard the organ accompaniment version, with sensitive accompaniment from Stewart Smith. Although the solo lines can be sung by the appropriate choral section, in this evening’s concert they were performed by mezzo-soprano Fiona Campbell and bass James Clayton, providing a welcome contrast to the choral texture. The soloists sang from the upper choir stalls of the Perth Concert Hall, giving a less effective dynamic impression than a closer placement might have achieved.

The Duruflé gave the 22 voices of the St George’s Cathedral Consort an opportunity to demonstrate their skills, with controlled shading offering appropriate drama when required. Occasional balance issues with the organ in more dramatic passages were apparent, but the inner balance of the ensemble was captured elegantly and the intimacy of the work was always apparent.

Members of St George’s Cathedral Consort

The work on which Bach’s Easter Oratorio is based dates from 1725 when he was cantor at St Thomas’ Church in Leipzig. The text is believed to have been written by the poet Christian Friedrich Henrici, who had begun his collaboration with Bach only a few months before the oratorio was conceived. Originally composed as a cantata for Easter Sunday in April 1725, the work was revised and given its new title in 1735. In contrast to other Bach oratorios there is no narrator, with the four characters Simon Peter (tenor Paul McMahon) John the Apostle (baritone James Clayton), Mary Magdalene (alto Fiona Campbell) and Mary Jacobi (soprano Sara Macliver) each relating the story of the Resurrection.

The Easter Oratorio is less familiar than Bach’s settings of the Passions of St Matthew and St John, possibly because most of the material was composed for earlier works and not necessarily for Easter. This adaptation of earlier works, known as ‘parodies’, was not uncommon since it allowed the composer more time to meet the considerable musical demands of Holy Week.

The work is a celebration of the Resurrection, reflected in the spirited mood of many of the movements and captured in an exemplary fashion by the WASO trumpet section. The opening chorus Kommt, Eilet und Laufet, describing the excitement of the discovery of the opened tomb, was reflected in the vocal clarity of the St George’s Cathedral Consort with soloists McMahon and Clayton. However, the ensuing recitative featuring the four soloists under-stated the drama of the scene observing the callousness of man to the Saviour.

The lengthy soprano solo Seele, deine Spezerein was performed by Macliver, and in combination with the flute obbligato playing of Andrew Nicholson their sympathetic phrasing added to the beauty of the aria. From an audience perspective the printed text in the program was helpful. McMahon met the tessitura challenges of Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer, a gentle pastorale-like aria of yearning, beautifully conveyed. In Saget, Saget mir geschwinde Campbell demonstrated the required dexterity of breath control in the aria, capturing the anticipation of seeing Jesus once more.

An exhilarating final chorus provided voices and orchestra with a joyous opportunity to conclude the work. Generally the voices produced a controlled and balanced ensemble, although occasional lack of vowel clarity in the upper voices made for a somewhat unvaried sound. The West Australian Symphony Orchestra with refined solo obbligati playing brought a sympathetic and cohesive accompaniment to this unfamiliar work, directed with uncomplicated authority by Nolan.

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