When it comes to large-scale Requiems, Dvořák’s contribution to the form – composed for the 1891 Birmingham Festival, at which the composer conducted the premiere – tends to be overlooked in favour of the operatic fire and brimstone of the Verdi. The last time Sydney Philharmonia Choirs presented the Czech composer’s take on the Latin Mass for the Dead was in the 1980s, and while the music doesn’t quite deliver the same punch as Verdi’s, this performance by the 350-strong Festival Chorus under Artistic Director Brett Weymark made a compelling argument for revisiting the work.
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. Photo © Keith Saunders
The choir’s hushed “Requiem aeternam” – massive forces bringing haunting depth to the soft choral texture – got the Requiem off to a spine-tingling start, following the muted strings’ pristine tracing of the chromatic ‘cross’ figure that threads through the work’s nearly two hours of music. From the quiet opening, it wasn’t long before the choir flexed its muscles on “Te decet hymnus”, giving the audiences a taste of the power to come in the terrifying Dies irae. If the text didn’t always come across clearly, such as in the fugue on “Quam olim Abrahae”, the choir maintained an engaging energy throughout.
The chorus was joined by a quartet of very fine soloists. Taryn Fiebig brought a ringing soprano to the Graduale, springing up into the high register on “et lux perpetua”, haloed by the chorus, while her sound was refulgent in the bright, pizzicato-flecked “In memoria”. Her duet moments with mezzo Fiona Campbell – who brought a soulful beauty to all her solos – were particularly exquisite. Andrew Goodwin is a mainstay of Australia’s choral scene, and his tenor cut through with full-bodied resonance in the “Liber scriptus” of the Tuba Mirum, while Michael Honeyman’s warm, unyielding baritone was a pleasure throughout. While a bass might deliver more power in the low notes of the Agnus Dei, Honeyman was magisterial in the opening solo of the Hostias. As an ensemble, the quartet distinguished themselves in the a cappella moments of the Rex tremendae and the Recordare, Jesu pie (the only breather the chorus gets in the entire Requiem) and in trio form (minus Honeyman) in the Sanctus and Benedictus and ethereal Pie Jesu.
The Sydney Youth Orchestra – bolstered by members of the Sydney Philharmonia Orchestra – did a sterling job. Particular highlights included the curling wind lines of the Tuba mirum – and Miriam Cooney’s oboe responses to Goodwin’s tenor solos – the fiery brass of the Confutatis maledictis and the driving cello wind up to the return of the “Quam olim Abrahae” fugue. There were moments – such as in the Dies irae – when the blazing orchestra tipped the balance, encroaching on the chorus, but the overall effect of the combined forces was nonetheless arresting.
Dvořák’s Requiem is not without its longueurs, but there is more than enough beautiful music to make up for them, and in the hands of Weymark and his forces, the work has found several hundred very convincing advocates.