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Fine choral opener

Review: West Australian Academy of Performing Arts, “Fauré’s Requiem” ⋅
St Mary’s Cathedral, April 11 ⋅
Review by Leon Levy ⋅

Has there ever been so fruitful a period of choral performance in Perth as that now under way?  Six months of eclectic and stimulating repertoire has included the visiting Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, the Choralfest currently underway in Fremantle and still to come the WA Symphony and St George’s Cathedral performing Bach’s St Matthew Passion on Tuesday.

The WA Academy of Performing Arts has inaugurated the 2019 season with a somewhat unexpected programme. “Fauré’s Requiem” was the concert title, but there in the small print of the Academy’s website was Telemann’s Concerto in E minor for Two Violins and Basso Continuo TWV 52:e4. Harking back to a world some 250 years distant, this work provided an effective and enjoyable opener. A double concerto is always a tantalising prospect, and conductor Paul Wright and Adrian Biemmi on the other violin proved to be beautifully matched soloists. Together with the WAAPA String Camerata, they did ample justice to this rarity.

Thereafter we were onto choral terra firma, the WAAPA Chamber Choir delivering four short unaccompanied works, three of them motets by Poulenc. The first of these, Timor et Tremor, written in 1939 for Holy Week, was followed by two Christmas motets, composed in 1952. Well-meshed and balanced choral sound conveyed the spirit of the works and, in the last, allowed Poulenc’s distinctive harmonies to be savoured. On paper, Edward Elgar seemed an unlikely candidate to conclude this bracket, but he did so most effectively. His brief elegy They Are at Rest was written for the 1910 anniversary of Queen Victoria’s death. A setting of words by Cardinal Newman, and displaying echoes of his Dream of Gerontius, it received a poised rendition by the choristers under conductor Kristin Bowtell.

And so to the title work of the evening. Fauré’s Requiem last received a very fine Perth performance in November under Dr Margaret Pride, and if another outing just five months later seemed excessive, this was certainly not the case. The first, with large chorus and orchestra, was very much what one might expect at Perth Concert Hall. Now, in St Mary’s Cathedral, with a modestly-sized WAAPA Symphonic Chorus and organ accompaniment (Stewart Smith), we were very much closer to a liturgical performance, albeit that the French church authorities of Fauré’s time would have insisted on an all-male vocal line-up. Here we had the choristers intermingled rather than grouped by voice-type, sometimes for the better, occasionally less so, although this arrangement did gain in effectiveness as the performance progressed. The two baritone soloists, Nathan Breeze and Kyle Garces, both brought a pleasing quality that was entirely consistent with the fresh and firm choral tone surrounding them, rather than projecting in an overtly soloistic manner. Ashley Chua’s Pie Jesu was confidently and cleanly declaimed, while Paul Wright’s solo violin in the Sanctus added a moment of distinction.

While a cathedral setting is most apt for a work such as this, the acoustic does pose its challenges. By the time of the Agnes Dei, however, the choral sound was cutting through most satisfyingly, although here, with the spotlight on the tenors, the disadvantage of their scattered disposition was revealed. Nevertheless, this was the movement in which the performance came into its stride and where the choir sounded truly integrated, as it did to the conclusion of the work.

Judged by this season opener, there are some very fine things happening at the WA Academy of Preforming Arts, and music director Kristin Bowtell and his forces have provided a tantalising foretaste of what may be in store this year.

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