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Reviews/Music

Easter (Oratorio) arrives in Perth

1 April 2021

The St George’s Cathedral Consort expands the musical horizon for West Australians in this Holy Week collaboration with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.

“Bach’s Easter Oratorio”, WA Symphony Orchestra and St George’s Cathedral Consort ·
Perth Concert Hall, 31 March 2021 ·

It’s no secret that Perth boasts one of the best choirs in the country. The reputation of the St George’s Cathedral Consort precedes them and the group, directed by Joseph Nolan, have significantly expanded the performance of sacred choral repertoire in Perth.

This week the choir partnered with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra for what was most likely the West Australian premiere of Bach’s Easter Oratorio, and the WASO premiere of Durufle’s Requiem.

They were joined by Australia’s leading Baroque soloists Fiona Campbell, Sara Macliver, Paul McMahon and James Clayton. Not surprisingly, the Concert Hall (now operating at the increased 75% capacity allowance) was sold out, its foyers teeming with people.

The performance was dedicated to Perth-born soprano Taryn Fiebig who died last month. It was a fitting tribute, opening with Durufle’s hauntingly beautiful Requiem, before moving to Bach’s more hopeful depiction of Jesus’ Easter Sunday resurrection.

Durufle’s Requiem (1947) reflects his liturgical background (he was primarily an organist at various Paris cathedrals in the early 20th century), and draws heavily on Gregorian Chant. But it is invested with contemporary harmony and textures and is an almost giddy mix of reassurance and arresting grimness. It can be performed with or without orchestral accompaniment, and we heard the version for choir and organ which seemed a shame, given the orchestra were in the building!

A 23-piece mixed gender choir stand in two lines across a stage, dressed in black and looking towards their conductor.
Joseph Nolan conducts the St George’s Cathedral consort in a performance of Durufle’s ‘Requiem’ for choir and organ. Photo supplied

However the opportunity to hear Stewart Smith on the Concert Hall pipe organ more than compensated. Durufle’s virtuosic organ writing demands rippling figures in the upper register over dense chordal harmonies and underpinned by complicated plain chant melodies on the pedals. Smith worked non-stop, negotiating the rapid changes in texture and volume to give us a vibrant, emotionally compelling performance.

Together with Nolan, they exploited Durufle’s harmonic moodiness, sculpting contrasts between different movements and, on a micro level, within small phrases. The “Domine” was particularly startling with its pentatonic harmony given extra exoticism thanks to Stewart Smith’s reedy tone on the Concert Hall pipe organ and Clayton’s baritone solo ringing out with full-throated magnificence.

Campbell’s mezzo soprano solo explored the full expressive trajectory of the “Pie Jesu”, moving from dark wondering to radiant worship. There were moments where the pristine singing of the 23 piece Consort was swamped by the organ, however the choir had the final say for “In Paradisum”, its opening melody sung with angelic clarity before both organ and choir blended for a languid descent into Durufle’s final and weighty depiction of rest.

The orchestra joined the choir for Bach’s Easter Oratorio (1725). This piece is less well-known than Bach’s other sacred works and offers less of a dramatic narrative, but Bach had an incredible ability to paint with sound, and Nolan is a master at highlighting his most vivid colours.

An oboe player stands to play a solo, her orchestral colleagues are seated around her on the stage.
Oboist Liz Chee’s solo in the ‘Adagio’ was a creamy, lyrical delight. Photo supplied

WASO’s three trumpeters stood to deliver the bristling fanfare of the opening “Sinfonia”, and the effect was electrifying. Nolan’s almost break-neck speed for “Come, hasten and run”, showcased the nimbleness of the Consort singers (although any sense of natural sentence structure was lost by the extreme emphasis on the first beat of every bar), while McMahon’s muted aria “My death throes shall be gentle” murmured along like a lullaby.

As the work unfolded it provided opportunity to feature orchestral soloists including Liz Chee, whose oboe solo in the “Adagio” was a creamy, lyrical delight. The discourse between flautist Andrew Nicholson and soprano Macliver was elegantly persuasive, their lines dovetailing with exquisite tenderness. Leanne Glover’s energised cor anglais playing drove the aria “Tell me, tell me quickly” along with gusto, punctuated by a moment of utter sadness as Campbell captured Mary’s sense of abandonment.

It was wonderful to witness the depth of talent as the orchestral players explored music outside their standard repertoire. Nolan draws exceptional commitment and passion from his musicians and this concert was no exception.

WASO’s next concert ‘Devils, Dances and Arabian Nights’ will be 8 & 9 April, 2021.

Pictured top: Joseph Nolan conducts the St George’s Cathedral Consort and the WA Symphony Orchestra in Bach’s Easter Oratorio. Photo supplied.

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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