Melbourne has been the hardest hit of all Australian cities throughout the pandemic and there was a moving and joyful atmosphere in the city’s Scots’ Church when the Australian Chamber Choir gave their first live concert in over a year and dedicated their performance to all those around the world who have lost loved ones to COVID-19.
The Australian Chamber Choir performs Fauré’s Requiem. Photo © 5stream
Led by the choir’s founder and artistic director Douglas Lawrence, the ACC were in fine voice and brought their trademark precision in pronunciation and synchronicity to a program of four works, culminating in the chamber version of Fauré’s Requiem.
With the curved wooden altar screen and off-white carved walls forming an austere but imposing backdrop, the unaccompanied 18 voices gave a vibrant performance of Brahms’ motet Schaffe in mir Gott Op. 29, No 2, with its text taken from Psalm 51 and a lively fugue in the middle section. The work showed off the unusually dynamic but balanced tonal colour of the choir, the sopranos in particular lending a strong bodied presence.
John Tavener’s fascination and commitment to the Russian Orthodox Church was displayed in his 1995 work, Svyati, meaning Holy One, with cellist Rosanne Hunt performing the solo role as the priest leading the congregation, weaving over a wordless drone in the basses before the sopranos and altos take up the melody singing in Church Slavonic.
The cello and chorus build before it ebbs back to the quiet and sombre opening, reaching an ecstatic climax in the cello’s higher register and full choir and ending in some ethereal harmonics.
After the darker tones of the Tavener, Fauré’s short student work Cantique de Jean Racine Op. 11 brought a sunny change, with Rhys Boak’s piano giving it a brighter hue. This was the composer’s first attempt to break away from the German-Austrian dominance of church music and find a French voice.
This, of course, reached its apotheosis in his best-known work, the Requiem Op. 48, the 1893 chamber version of which was performed in this concert with chamber organ, harp, doubled horns and a small string section.
The choir is blessed with two fine soloists in baritone Oliver Mann, whose two solos showed why he is in demand not only as a Bach bass specialist but also with Victorian Opera, and soprano Amelia Jones. Mann’s first solo, Hostias et preces tibi Domine, was complemented by stirring playing in the lower strings.
After Mann’s first solo there was a pause and the sounds of a band blaring from outside caused Lawrence to remark to the audience that “it is a big city”!
But peace was restored and Jones’s full-bodied soprano solo Pie Jesu was a standout while the choir was in top form for the beautiful, uplifting In Paradisum with the effervescent backing of Boak on organ.
If there were a slight criticism to be made as a live stream listener it was that the microphone placement meant that some of the orchestral passages were a little too much to the fore, although this might not have been the case for the live audience. Generally, though, the production and sound on the live stream were excellent.
Fauré was adamant that he wrote the Requiem for pleasure, not for anyone in particular, even though his father had died recently. It was, however, sung at the composer’s own funeral.
This fine performance by the ACC showed why this work’s light shines just as brightly today as it did at its birth in Francé’s Belle Epoque.
The Australian Chamber Choir’s performance of Fauré’s Requiem tours until August 29 and is available to stream on demand