★★★½☆ Snippets from Australia’s future choristers and a provocative Mozart Requiem.

City Recital Hall, Sydney
April 29, 2016

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra has put on a characteristically bold and thoughtful concert, entitled Mozart Requiem: 100 Voices. In it they join forces with the Brandenburg Choir and the Brandenburg Young Voices, a choir comprised of children from some sixteen schools from around Sydney. Artistic Director Paul Dyer pointed out before the music began that this concert was about more than itself, since it was a chance to give the next crop of Australian singers a go, while also showcasing soloists who themselves were once in the youth choir. As Richard Gill regularly reminds us in his Limelight column, music education is indispensable to one’s school experience, and Dyer and the Brandenburg Orchestra should be congratulated on their promoting music education.

The first half consisted of a number of shorter works from the Renaissance to the present, beginning (in reverse chronological order) with Festive Alleluia, composed by the Founder and Artistic Director of Sydney Children’s Choir, Lyn Williams. The choir began the song from the back of the hall, enthusiastically thronging onto the stage, all the while executing a musical canon with impressive accuracy. A duo of anonymously attributed medieval chants were followed by the Brandenburg Choir performing an entrancing rendition of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s Alma Redemptoris Mater, this polyphonic gem sung with noteworthy precision. Unfortunately a howling cough in the audience interrupted the serenity in the penultimate line (ironically) on the words “Gabriel’s joyful greeting”, though the next line (“have mercy on sinners”) was a reprieve of sorts.

Next up, the four soloists (soprano Amy Moore, alto Max Riebl, tenor Paul Sutton and bass Alexander Knight) joined forces for a rambunctious rendition of Orlando di Lasso’s Mantona Mia Cara. Sung from the top loft above the organ, the song hilariously captures a German soldier boasting of his virility in Italian and bad French to an Italian girl, full of louche lines like “When I go hunting, I hunt with the falcon / I’ll bring you woodcock, fat as a kidney”, and “I will make love to you all night long, thrusting like a ram”. It was a brilliant romp, waggishly choreographed and executed with perfect timing. The Brandenburg Orchestra then joined both choirs for two rollicking ditties by John Rutter. The strings playing on period instruments sounded a little tinny, but the full orchestra was at its best for the Hallelujah Chorus from George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. A few diehard Messiah stalwarts in the audience stood for the chorus, sung and played with tremendous energy and exuberance, the trumpets soaring eloquently and with a crisp tone. The applause was dutifully rapturous. 

After interval, the Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir performed an extremely fast version of Mozart’s Requiem. Paul Dyer is nothing if not bold, deciding on a frenzied pace for the work. The choir and orchestra were as usual magnificent, but to me, the tempo necessarily sacrificed much of the solemnity of the work. The lilting motif of the Introit, for instance, uncoils for a number of minutes before handing off to a sparse, imploring soprano solo. At great speed, this gesture lost some of its tremendous gravitas. The intonation in the soprano solo was also a little unsettled. Again, in the Kyrie, it was impossible to do justice to the ornate semiquaver passages that pass from one part of the chorus to the other. In the Dies Irae, there is so much drama already in the shimmering string passages, the call and response between the bass and sopranos, and the pounding, repeated notes in the brass, that an excessive tempo actually detracts. The Sequence included some very solid singing from the soloists, with tenor Paul Sutton in particular able to create a charming tone, while all soloists were on their game in the Recordare. The Confutatis was a little slower and truly gripping, the sopranos achieving a tender tone on “voca me”. The dramatist in Dyer pulled back the tempo again in the Lacrimosa, and it was fittingly tear inducing. In fact, it was so moving that it made me think (briefly) that maybe the extreme tempi of the previous movements were worth it for the theatrical effect.

The Finale of the Requiem, the Offertory, is the completion of the Requiem by Mozart’s pupil, Franz Süssmayr, since the work was unfinished at the time of Mozart’s death in December 1791. It is quite amusing that today we hear the entirety of Mozart’s Requiem when he didn’t compose the second half. In fact, it wasn’t even finished by a man for whom Mozart had any respect: there are repeated references to “that idiot Süssmayr” in letters. The second half comes across as banal in comparison to the majesty and inspiration of the first half. Nonetheless, Mozart’s music from the Introit mercifully returns in the Communion, where soprano Amy Moore was quite angelic and much more certain. Dyer pulled back the tempo for the final Requiem aeternum, and with a timpani flourish and unison D from the choir, the curtain was closed on a thought-provoking rendition of this great work