What is it about the key of D Minor? Think of the mighty Toccata and Fugue in that key we ascribe to Bach, or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. There seems to be something monumental embedded in the DNA of this key that speaks to us of life and death, of the meaning of our existence. Enterprising programmers at the City of London Festival in 2011 used D Minor to forge an interesting musical link between Bach’s solo Violin Partita No 2 and the Fauré Requiem.
Obviously the Requiem is concerned with death, but research presented with this disc suggests that the outsize Ciacona with which Bach concluded the Partita is a memorial for his first wife Maria Barbara, who died suddenly at Cöthen in 1720 while Bach was away with his patron, Prince Leopold in Karlsbad. Professor Helga Thoene further suggests that the whole partita is based on a series of chorales (inaudible to the listener) and has the secret theme of death and resurrection. To prove this theory, violinist Gordan Nikolitch performs the Partita interleaved with apposite chorales sung by Tenebrae. In the concluding Ciacona the forces join together to create an atmospheric, if not wholly convincing musical hybrid.
The Requiem follows the Ciacona without a break, making an imposing impact. Nigel Short understands the importance of orchestral weight of sound in creating Fauré’s unique musical chiaroscuro, particularly in the opening Introit and Kyrie. Using John Rutter’s edition of Fauré’s original 1893 orchestration, Short strikes a good balance between gravitas and clarity throughout. Tempos are mostly spacious, allowing for generous phrasing and time for the music to work its quiet charm. Tenebrae sings with admirable cohesion and intonation.
Soprano Grace Davidson delivers the Pie Jesu sweetly, thankfully sounding like a woman, rather than a woman trying to imitate a boy’s voice. William Gaunt sings the baritone solos with warmth and depth of tone without resorting to any histrionics. Occasionally the engineering allows the quieter utterances of choir and organ to recede a little too far into the distance, but this is a minor qualm. As the celestial In paradisum effected the final transformation from D Minor to D Major, I felt grateful for the opportunity to take this unusual but heartwarming musical journey and hope that planners of Australian music festivals may exhibit similar creative flair in the future.