St George’s Cathedral was strung with microphones for the first of four concerts throughout the year which will be broadcast on ABC Classic FM. It’s a testament to director Joseph Nolan and the Cathedral Consort’s national reputation as a world class choir grounded in the crisp purity of the English choral tradition. The 21-piece Consort performed a programme of choral classics spanning the 16th to 21st centuries with Fauré’s Requiem as the centrepiece. The pews were reversed so the ensemble could perform from the Narthex on Friday night in close proximity to Stewart Smith in the organ loft.
Two 16th-century works opened the programme: Victoria’s Alma Redemptoris Mater with its intervals of open fourths and fifths so perfectly tuned the harmonics prickled my skin, and the dense polyphonic energy of Gibbons’ O Clap Your Hands. Nolan conducted with pulsing energy although the section entries were not as precisely in unison as usual.
Stewart Smith’s striking organ chords gave a Gothic darkness to the opening of Fauré’s Requiem and the work was rich with dramatic poise, notably the velveteen smoothness of the “Amen” concluding the Offertorium and the swell of sound to illuminate “et lux perpetua luceat eis” in the Agnus Dei.
But the work wasn’t the musical centrepiece I was expecting. I missed the warmth of the orchestral accompaniment; the organ registrations were brittle, phrases clipped short and the rippling accompaniment to Sanctus (famously scored for harp and violin) felt too fast and mechanical. The soloists were tentative: baritone Andrew Foote warmed into the baritone role in his second solo and Edward Micro’s treble was pure and rounded but on the edge of cracking.
Instead William Walton’s The Twelve emerged as the highlight of the programme. The biting harmonies and dramatic word painting of Walton’s anthem and mini cantata were sung with vigour and unity. Foote delivered a splendidly declamatory solo and Smith exploded into brillante organ arpeggios. The Consort sung with immaculate diction and rhythmic precision and the ensemble soloists were excellent, particularly the beautifully delivered soprano duo.
The spotlight on individual Consort singers was also the highlight of Charpentier’s Te Deum, providing a rare chance to hear the different timbres within this well-blended ensemble. The organ sat more organically in this arrangement. In fact the entire second half of the programme was pristine, concluding with a setting of Ubi Caritas by Perry Joyce (a tenor from the Consort) which was a warmly mellow contrast to Handel’s Zadok the Priest where the choir sang with enormous volume underpinned by Smith’s virtuosic organ semiquavers.
ABC Classic FM will broadcast this concert May 12 at 12pm