Eclectic French programme makes for a sublimely reflective evening.

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney
July 10, 2015

Brett Weymark’s latest programme for Sydney Philharmonia Choirs takes twin nods from the upcoming Bastille Day celebrations and the centenary of the Australian sacrifice on the fields of France to offer a reflective survey of French choral music of the last hundred years or so – and it’s a tantalising mix of the old and the unfamiliar.

Fauré’s Requiem is the bums-on-seats hook, but for the more adventurous there is music by the underplayed Maurice Duruflé, the underrated Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur, and a burst of organ music by the mighty Louis Vierne. Add to that a new setting by organist/composer Calvin Bowman of an Apollinaire poem and you have enough Gallic spice to rouse the most jaded palate.

The sheer bulk of St. Mary’s Cathedral can be a blessing and a curse. Its generous resonance lends an extra dollop of spirituality to sacred music such as this, yet controlling that sound, ensuring blend and keeping pitch within a wash of sound is a very devil. It was a credit to the Symphony Chorus and their ambitious, inspirational musical director that they came through with mostly flying colours.

The programme opened with O Salutaris Hostia by Pierre Villette (1926-1998, a pupil of Duruflé possessing a similar gift for combining simplicity with pungent harmonies), sung by the choir off stage, the sound seemingly coming at us from everywhere and nowhere. I didn’t know Villette’s work until an excellent Delphian disc hit my desk earlier this year and it was terrific to have those good impressions confirmed by a magical live experience. Segueing into the profound and sonorous Prelude from Vierne’s First Organ Symphony (beautifully paced by Calvin Bowman who didn’t put a foot wrong all night), the choir processed solemnly to their seats, the theatrical effect spookily like the entry of the Grail Knights in Parsifal.

Duruflé’s attractive Four Motets on Gregorian Themes followed – an Ubi Cartitas, rocking like a cradle song; a radiant Hymn to the Virgin (Tota Pulchra Es) sung by the well-disciplined, mellifluous ladies voices; a Tu Es Petrus exploding with energy and a few rhythmic fun and games; and a simple, yet profound Tantum Ergo to finish. The concentration and attention on the faces of the assembled singers reflected in the half-light was an atmospheric bonus.

The meat in the first half came with Daniel-Lesur’s celebratory Messe de Jubilé. True to its name, this full mass setting begins with a real flourish and it’s joyously uphill from there. The choir gave it plenty of bite with crisp consonants and a sense of worshipful spirit. The blend was excellent, though I might have liked to hear a little more of the male voices in the mix. Highlights included the big play out to the Credo, played with considerable panache by Bowman, a lovely subdued Sanctus and a ravishing Benedictus sung from the organ loft by Anna Fraser and Hadleigh Adams (despite the addition of a frustrating obligato police siren). At times reminiscent of that master of sacred music Herbert Howells, if you only know Daniel-Lesur from Le Cantique des Cantiques, he’s well worth further exploration.

Calvin Bowman’s Nos Étoiles, a setting of an Apollinaire poem in which a soldier abroad reflects on his absent lover had a delicately scored organ accompaniment over which a slightly elusive vocal line emerged. Perhaps the acoustic hindered a full appreciation of its harmonic subtleties, but it didn’t quite land for me until it arrived at its appealing (and more conventional) final stanza with voices spinning off into a magical choral nightscape, twinkling stars picked out on the organ.

The Fauré Requiem was saved for last and wove its usual magic. Its surprising how many times you can hear this work and still be moved by its understated air of sincerity and reflection, leading from the glorious tunes of the Introit, Sanctus and Agnus Dei through the grandeur of the Hostias and the Libera Me to the magical simplicity of the Pie Jesu and concluding In Paradisum. From their first hushed entry the choir, under their conductor’s sensitive direction, were fully inside the music. Weymark has an unerring sense of pacing and – a rare gift this – an instinct for the big picture, never lingering over a pause between movements when pushing on makes better dramatic sense. This ensured that more episodic movements like the Libera Me with its swinging 6/8 Dies Irae delivered full measure.

The Hostias benefitted from a spine-tingling misterioso opening from altos and tenors and a warmly projected solo from baritone Hadleigh Adams. The normally reliable Anna Fraser, however, seemed a little out of sorts in the Pie Jesu, occasionally below the note and less than ideally light and pure of tone. The men too just struggled a little in the exposed melodies of the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei – those awkward-sitting high French tenor lines that sag so easily – but full marks here to the SPC ladies who were on great form throughout.

Finally, is there are more entrancing ending than Fauré’s musical imagining of the Holy City? The In Paradisum found the sopranos singing their hearts out as they ascended to the heights over Bowman’s glittering pointillist accompaniment. As the final notes died away, another cop car whizzed past in the Sydney night, perfectly highlighting the contrast between our sometimes grim 24/7 modern world and the peace and quiet of the world to come. Amen.

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs perform Fauré’s Requiem on July 11 at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney.