THE VANCOUVER BACH CHOIR ADDS NEW LUSTER TO THE 2019 EMV FESTIVAL
Danielle Sampson (soprano), Sumner Thompson (baritone), Christina Hutten (organ), Vancouver Bach Choir (dir. Leslie Dala), Vancouver Bach Festival Chamber Choir (dir. Kathleen Allan): Works by Fauré, Poulenc, Milhaud, Saint-Saëns and Ravel, Christ Church Cathedral, August 1, 2019.
A first time appearance of the Vancouver Bach Choir in Early Music Vancouver’s 2019 Bach Festival constitutes an exciting development for both organizations. Later French choral masterpieces were the focus, including Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem and Cantique de Jean Racine and Francis Poulenc’s Mass in G, with smaller works by Milhaud, Saint-Saëns and Ravel interspersed between. If one thinks this repertoire moves a little far afield for a Bach Festival, be assured that one can find the BACH motif in the sixth part of Faure’s Requiem, ’Libera me.’ Questions of authenticity are more pressing for this work, and there is now a decisive preference for using the original reduced orchestration version of the Requiem (1893) over its more luxuriant 1901 edition. Unusual for a festival committed to authenticity, this performance sidestepped this question entirely by using a (modified) Barenreiter organ arrangement to accompany the chorus. The Bach Choir achieved considerable success in the work’s climactic moments, but the experiment proved less convincing elsewhere. The Poulenc and the smaller pieces were performed with redeeming spirit and flexibility by the smaller Vancouver Bach Festival Chamber Choir – a choir of about 20 members drawn from the full chorus, directed by Kathleen Allen.
Of all the famous historical incarnations of the Requiem Mass, Fauré’s is the most intimate and lyrical, providing listeners with consolation, solace, and glimpses of heavenly paradise. This spirit probably comes out no matter whether one uses the earlier orchestral version, premiered at the Madeleine in Paris in 1893, and scored for pairs of bassoons, horns, trumpets, harp, solo violin, divided violas and cellos, and organ, or the later later version, published by Julien Hamelle in 1901, which adds flutes, clarinets, trombones, timpani, and a full section of violins. However, any listener would notice a marked difference in the work’s intimacy and spell if one compared the pioneering 1980s recordings of John Rutter and Matthew Best of the original edition with the more feverish 1960s French performances of the later edition by André Cluytens and Ernest Ansermet. Though not sanctioned by the composer, one might see this concert’s presentation with organ alone as aiming for even greater intimacy, but the unusual decision to combine this with a very large choir, with a few dozen voices on each part, seemed to move controversially in the opposite direction.
The balance and coordination of choir and organ was largely unproblematic in the more climactic parts of the work. Indeed, ‘Exaudi’ and ‘Christe’ of the first movement, ‘Osanna in excelsis’ of the third movement, and ‘Dies illa, dies irae’ of the sixth movement, came off quite well. However, the volume level of the organ may have been a constraint elsewhere: at no point could the choir manage anything below a mezzo forte, and they often seemed restricted in their upper range too. Consequently, the opening incantation of ‘Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine’, the concluding ‘Amen’ of the second movement, and the ‘Lux aeterna’ of the fifth movement, all lacked a sense of hushed intensity and mystery. The quieter sections of music also exposed inconsistencies in the choir’s articulation of initial and terminal consonants. For example, the terminal consonants of ‘eis’ in ‘dona eis Domine’ and ‘luceat’ in ‘luceat eis’ needed more uniform articulation. On the other hand, the canonic imitation between contraltos and tenor on ‘O Domine Jesu Christe’ was admirably presented, and the subsequent entries of basses and sopranos in three and four-part counterpoint were managed cleanly. Overall, Leslie Dala’s tempi tended to be well judged and on the brisk side – just enough to lend the music a sense of forward momentum, but without sacrificing clarity of texture.
The soprano and baritone soloists both sang with clear enunciation and a reasonable feeling for style. Danielle Sampson performed the ‘Pie Jesu’ with a bright, clear voice, refreshingly free of mannerism. Perhaps she might have sought more repose, which could have been be achieved by marginally relaxing the tempo between phrases. Baritone Sumner Thompson sang the ‘Hostias’ and ‘Libera me’ with genuine fervor and commitment, putting his rich timbre and ample dynamic range to good effect, though for this music one may have preferred a slightly less obtrusive vibrato and greater continuity of line. Other than the basic consideration of balance and volume levels, organist Christina Hutten provided intelligent support throughout, employing a suitably wide range of colors though not quite revealing some of the telling luminosity of texture that an orchestra could provide.
Kathleen Allan elicited spirited performances from the Festival Chamber Choir in the Poulenc and smaller selections. The Poulenc Mass in G Major is an especially difficult work, with angular melodic lines, large leaps in all the voices, dissonant harmonic combinations and unpredictable changes of meter. The exposed octaves at the start of the ‘Kyrie’ proved a bit of a stumbling block for intonation but, once past that hurdle, the singers seemed to relish the work’s remaining challenges, finding a sense of rhythmic playfulness in the ‘Sanctus’ and gentle lyricism in the ‘Agnus Dei’. Of the shorter pieces, Milhaud’s ‘Qu’il est beau’ had a charming simplicity and elegance, Saint-Saëns’ ‘Les fleurs et les arbres’ combined rhythmic élan and melodic freshness, and Ravel’s ‘Ronde’ was a riot of rapid-fire patter, glissandos, onomatopoeia and other humorous vocal effects. It is a tribute to the discipline and flexibility of the choir that they were able to navigate so many changes of idiom and character in such a short space of time. On this evidence, it seems that a more precise and agile vocal ensemble of this size, with a greater dynamic and tonal variety at its command, would have also been a more persuasive fit with the Fauré Requiem.
© Nicolas Krusek 2019