Concert Reviews

REVIEWS

Russian Choral Classic a Song of Ice and Fire

The West Australian 2018, by William Yeoman

Written in 1915 and first performed that year, Rachmaninov's Vespers, or, more properly, All-Night Vigil, is one of the crowning glories of Russian Orthodox choral music.

Liturgically the All-Night Vigil is sung between sunrise and sunset. But Rachmaninov's combining traditional chant with a more romantic use of antiphony, register, texture and harmony makes for a thrilling concert work.

As it did on Thursday night, when St George's Cathedral Consort under the direction of Joseph Nolan delivered a performance that combined the purity and evanescence of snow with a red-hot intensity. Of course, these are not Russian singers. Russian choirs, especially their basses, exhibit a richness and authenticity that's hard to beat.

But it's not a question of cultural appropriation - it's one of respect for the composer. Nolan's solution - and here one could compare the approach of English chamber choirs such as Nigel Short's Tenebrae - was to produce as clean and immaculate an interpretation as possible so as to unleash the score's inherent power.

Thus nothing was forced. Yet the effect was musically and emotionally overwhelming.

The opening Come, Let Us Worship was rousing yet solemn. Bless The Lord, O My Soul - boasting a highly expressive, dark-toned mezzo soloist in Fiona Campbell - brought those lovely contrasts between the dark lower and ethereal upper voices so magnificently to the fore.

Tenor Perry Joyce was the affecting, eloquent soloist for the Nunc Dimittis, which Rachmaninov wanted sung at his funeral, while further on The Great Doxology - when a part of Matins, sung as the sun rises - bathed the cathedral in an effulgence of sound.

Normally a congregation would stand during the closing section. Here, the audience leapt to their feet at the end, applauding this radiant finish to St George's 2018 concert series and celebration of the 130th anniversary of the cathedral's consecration.

Messiah

The West Australian 2013, by William Yeoman

A famous yoga teacher once said (and I paraphrase from memory here) imprecision was an impiety. The same could be said about the performance of sacred music — or indeed any music of real quality. It’s not a question of honouring God; it’s a question of honouring the composer, the audience, fellow musicians and, of course, yourself.

But precision is only half the story. And that’s where a performer such as organist and St George’s Cathedral master of the choristers Joseph Nolan comes in. His is a precision born of passion, commitment and, yes, a sense of honour.

Which is why Tuesday night’s performance of Handel’s sacred masterpiece Messiah was such an unqualified triumph. Although performed with reduced forces approximating those Handel used in Dublin in 1742, the effect was as overwhelming, if not more so, than that of a more usual larger choir and orchestra.

So: nine string players using baroque instruments and bows; two natural trumpets and timpani; a harpsichord and chamber organ (Stewart Smith in fine form); a 16-voice choir.

The venerable soloists will be no strangers to Perth audiences: soprano Sara Macliver, mezzo Fiona Campbell, tenor Paul McMahon and bass Andrew Foote. As Sandra Bowdler points out in her excellent program notes: “There is no such thing as a definitive Messiah.” And perhaps there is no such thing as a definitive performance of Messiah. But this one must have come pretty damn close.

Nolan is always an animated conductor, yet his gestures are never superfluous or showy. Neither are the resulting musical gestures.

Choruses already replete with startling word-painting such as His yoke is easy, his burden is light, All we like sheep, Surely, He hath borne our griefs, Let us break their bonds, Hallelujah and the majestic finale Worthy is the Lamb that was slain with its magnificent “Amen” were characterised by absolute clarity of diction, fluid, highly articulated runs, radiant textural and chordal balance and spine-tingling climaxes.

Each soloist was equally impressive. Macliver’s refulgent Rejoice, sung here in the dancing 12/8 triplet version, was a real highlight, while Campbell’s He was despised, by contrast glowed with a transfigured bitterness that was very effecting.

McMahon’s rich, flexible tenor announced its expressive eloquence immediately in the opening recitative Comfort ye and air Ev’ry valley; the heightened drama of Foote’s Why do the nations was almost a set-piece in itself.

Throughout, leader Paul Wright and his fellow string players adopted a pungent, vibrato-less string tone that accentuated the texture of the part-writing while providing a telling foil to the mellowness of the organ, the brightness of the harpsichord and brass and the sharp, hard thunder of Tim White’s timpani.

This was uncompromising musicianship of the highest order. It’s just a pity more people weren’t present to hear it.

Lux Aeterna

The West Australian 2012, by Neville Cohn

A choral compilation well off the beaten track provided fascinating listening at the weekend.

Working in conjunction with Heritage Australia, St George's Cathedral Consort performed US composer Morten Lauridsen's setting of Lux Aeterna against a changing backdrop of colour photographs of Perth featuring unexpected and quirky angles, a facade here, a portal there, the boathouse at Crawley Edge and novel perspectives of some of the city's houses of worship - as well as the garishly lit facade of Council House situated across the road from St George's Cathedral.

But here, it was the music that mattered most.

And what fascinating and often moving material it was, the manifold beauties of the writing inspired to a significant degree by the composer's powerful attraction to words.

I particularly liked his setting of the Agnus Dei; its quiet, supplicatory mood was evoked with very real artistry.

Here, as elsewhere, Stewart Smith's organ accompaniment was a model of discreet musicianship. Throughout the evening, Joseph Nolan, master of the choristers, presided over events to fine effect.

An account of Pizzetti's a cappella setting of Messa di Requiem gave us singing to savour with phrase after meticulously shaped phrase in an unusually lengthy Dies Irae. It came across with impeccable internal tonal balance and splendidly clear diction.

Often the best gifts come in the tiniest packages and this was the case in the two choral miniatures that book-ended the evening. Lux Aeterna, set to the music of Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations, and Samuel Barber's ubiquitous Adagio, heard here in the far less frequently encountered setting of the Agnus Dei, were sung in a way that would surely have moved the most indifferent of listeners.

Another delight in miniature was Victoria's Alma Redemptoris Mater in which the choristers responded to the composer's inspired polyphony in often-hushed terms which, in its quiet way, was so much more moving than many a more bombastic utterance.

Passion Matched with Perfection

The West Australian 2014, by Rosalind Appleby

I've been searching for a new recording of Bach's St Matthew Passion and I've finally found it. The only problem is it hasn't yet been recorded.

In fact, the absence of recording equipment may have been the only flaw in the St Matthew Passion performed by the St George's Cathedral Consort with the orchestra of The Musician's Table. Conductor Joseph Nolan's attention to detail was evident everywhere else, from the baroque soloists sourced from around the country to the positioning of instrumental soloists.

Nolan's judicious editing cut Bach's three-hour Easter Passion to about two hours and (unlike Mendelssohn's arrangement) the harmonic transitions were smooth and the storyline coherent. The chorales were performed unaccompanied, allowing Bach's evolving harmonic architecture to be clearly heard. The beauty of the consort sound glowed like a pearl. But most significantly, the silence framing the chorales helped reclaim their original function; a space for self-reflection within the gospel story.

At other times, Nolan kept momentum rolling forward, contrasting outraged climaxes with heartbroken intimacy as the story of Jesus' arrest and crucifixion unfolded. Paul McMahon (Evangelist) narrated with fiery conviction, Andrew Foote sang Jesus with weighty presence, while Robert Hofmann and Richard Butler filled out the smaller roles.

Bach reserved his most tender music for the women onlookers in Matthew's gospel and it is hard to imagine more magical versions than the ones given on Sunday night. Fiona Campbell's prayerful "Have mercy" duet with Paul Wright's sobbing violin was convincing, while Sara Macliver's "Out of love my Saviour is willing to die" was like a love song with the trio of flute and cor anglais throbbing an exquisitely soft accompaniment.

"A thousand thanks for thy passion," Macliver sung as Bach's masterwork drew to a close, "That thou didst prize my soul's redemption so dearly!"

For your passion, and for prizing musical excellence so highly, a thousand thanks Joseph Nolan and the cathedral team. Please make a recording soon.

Mozart Great Mass & Requiem

The West Australian 2010, by William Yeoman

When your spine tingles from the first bar, you continuously have to fight back tears and, at the end of it all, the conductor turns to take his bow looking like he's just gone a round with Danny Green, you know you've just experienced an extraordinary musical event.

Comprising two of the great unfinished works of the choral repertoire, Mozart's "Great" C minor Mass and his Requiem in D minor, this concert by four soloists, the St George's Cathedral Consort and a chamber orchestra featuring some of WASO's finest, all under the baton of Joseph Nolan, will live long in the collective memory of the capacity audience.

Why? Firstly, the music itself was sublime, with Mozart's ability to synthesise different styles, from high-church polyphony to Neapolitan opera, operating at full tilt from start to finish.

Secondly, Nolan's ability to feel the expressive weight of each note in the context of the whole without disrupting the natural flow of the music or short-circuiting its emotional logic was again powerfully on show.

Every strand in fugues such as that of the Mass's Gloria felt like they'd had an electric current applied to them; the drama of the same movement's Qui tollis section and the Dies irae of the Requiem was almost unbearable in its intensity; the Mass's closing Benedictus for solo quartet and double choir radiated joy and profundity in equal measure.

Thirdly, soloists, choir and orchestra sang and played as though their lives depended on it. Yes, there were the occasional infelicities, with mezzo Courtney Pitman's more florid passages less than secure and tenor Paul McMahon and baritone Robert Hofmann, otherwise dramatically convincing, sometimes lacking crispness of attack.

But soprano Sara Macliver to my mind had never sounded more radiant - her Et incarnates est with the equally beguiling trio of flautist Andrew Nicholson, Oboist Stephanie Nicholls and bassoonist Adam Mikulicz was one of the highlights of the evening - while the Cathedral Consort sang with an almost otherworldly precision and explosive power. The orchestra, playing on modern instruments but in fine period style, was equally convincing throughout.

The word "genius" is perhaps too readily bandied about these days. I think it's more accurate to say that Joseph Nolan has a supreme talent for recognizing where in a piece of music the genius resides, and how to communicate that to an audience in the most direct and uncompromising fashion. More of a musician you cannot ask.