WASO Chorus gives voice to a forgotten treasure

16 May 2022

Cherubini’s church music compositions are today largely overlooked, but proved a fine choice for the WASO Chorus, writes Leon Levy

WASO Chorus Sings: Cherubini’s Requiem ·
St Mary’s Cathedral, 15 May 2022 ·

Mention the name of any leading composer and, for most music lovers, a distinctive physical or sound image will immediately spring to mind. Not so in the case of Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), Italian-born but French by adoption, who rates a scant paragraph in the esteemed Oxford Companion to Music.

And yet, he was an influential figure, serving with distinction as director of the Paris Conservatoire for 20 years, and his Requiem in C Minor, written for an 1817 commemoration of the execution of Louis XVI in the French Revolution, was held in high esteem by the musicians of the time. Foremost of these was Beethoven at whose funeral the requiem was played. And even the younger Berlioz, for whom Cherubini was primarily an obstacle, acknowledged the Requiem, both in word as well as in his own music.  

Heard in its full orchestral guise, it is indeed an impressive work, and its innovative colours and effects – controversial at the time – are part of what made it such a splendid choice for the “WASO Chorus Sings” season.

The question on this occasion, however, was whether, shorn of its orchestral clothing and transcribed for chorus and organ by Andrew Foote, the work could retain the impact intended by the composer. The answer, unsurprisingly, is that for all the skill and effort that would have gone into the task, the orchestral effects and colours were indeed missed. 

Instead, the “Introitus” momentarily suggested the world of Fauré, whose requiem, composed some 70 years later, is familiar with its organ accompaniment. Be that as it may, the WASO Chorus rose to the occasion, in the “Kyrie” as elsewhere, and along with organist Jacinta Jakovcevic, filled St Mary’s Cathedral with glorious tone. 

Striking moments were many: the move from piano to forte in the “Dies Irae” expertly executed, with “Rex tremendae majestatis” catching the power and passion that an orchestra might have conveyed; and with what sublime beauty did that movement end. And while the staggered entries were less convincing in an otherwise clear and confident “Offertorium”, things certainly took off with the fugal “Quam olim Abrahae”.

If there were moments when the men’s upper voices betrayed their small numbers, in the “Pie Jesu” they were certainly in exemplary form, taking their cue from the poised sopranos. A fervently expressed “Agnus Dei” ended a fine performance of a striking work the absence of which from the choral repertoire is a total mystery. I think Beethoven would have thought so too, as he said: “If I were to write a requiem, Cherubini’s would be my only model”.

Not to be overlooked were the brief items that opened and closed the concert. At the start, a serene, antiphonal Pater Noster setting by Slovenian composer Jacobus Gallus (1550-1591) who held important court and church positions within the Austro-Hungarian world and whose music was considered to be of fine quality. The performance took a moment to settle, but boasted impeccable bass tone and was well worth hearing. So too was Lassus’s fine motet Timor et tremor, well-balanced and clearly articulated. And, by way of an encore, a tasty morsel from Arvo Pärt in which the Angel Gabriel greets the Virgin Mary, and in which the men of the chorus showed their colours.

Once again, Andrew Foote and a committed WASO Chorus ventured outside well-trodden choral paths to bring stimulating music-making to a large and appreciative audience.

Find out more about WASO’s 2022 season here.

Pictured top: Members of the WASO Chorus led by Andrew Foote in St Mary’s Cathedral. Photo courtesy WA Symphony Orchestra.

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Author —
Leon Levy

Leon Levy‘s career was spent in commerce, but in retirement continues a lifetime’s interest in the arts generally and choral singing in particular. He enjoys occasional reviewing with its challenge of giving total focus to each performance. Leon remains attracted to playground slides under the cover of supervising his grandchildren.

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