Review: Portsmouth Choral Union – Duruflé Requiem

St Mary’s Church, Portsea, Saturday 25 May 2024

Like a lunchtime recital, there is something enticing about a short early evening performance. Somehow the listening experience becomes more poised and concentrated than is often the case with longer more arduous musical adventures, and something of the day still remains afterwards. Portsmouth Choral Union delivered just such an experience at St Mary’s Church with a 75-minute programme beginning at 5.30pm.

The concert began with four glorious anthems. First off, Handel’s Zadock the Priest which provided a “no introduction needed” punchy and spirited welcome. This was followed by Elgar’s Give unto the Lord which ebbed and flowed at just the right pace as the choir successfully caught changes of mood and dynamics. Mendelssohn’s Hear my Prayer introduced Faye Eldret (soprano) whose upper range soared impressively and with much clarity – and yet she was also able to find smaller moments of sweetness in the familiar “O, for the wings of a dove” section. Last was Parry’s I was glad when they said unto me which was served up with such genuine joy that this immediately transferred itself to the listener. Unconscious smiles of pleasure flowered spontaneously across the audience during this item which was a delight to behold.

The main feature was Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem, commissioned in 1941 but not completed and performed until 1947. Despite being composed against the dark and bloody backdrop of a world war, David Gostick (Musical Director) was keen to point out that Duruflé alsooffers both optimism and hope. He was not wrong in this. As the Requiem unfolded its sumptuous harmonies and evocative blending of Gregorian chant, a sense of calm and other worldliness fell upon the church. Although sometimes compared with Fauré’s Requiem Duruflé’s sound world is much different and quite hard to capture precisely. Words such as floating, drifting, shimmering, imploring, come to mind – and all bathed in light of one kind or another. Much reminiscent of earlier French impressionism of course, but somehow Duruflé retains a uniqueness.

The choir’s sound at the quieter end of its dynamic range – both in the Requiem and throughout the programme – was impressive and revealed some true quality. Perhaps working solely with organ rather than with full orchestral backing brought some special musical opportunities. There were one or two moments when the balance of sound between choir and organ meant that some elements of detail were lost – but these were fleeting and quickly responded to. Faye Eldret was welcomed back for a further solo in the Pie Jesu which again brought some lovely pianissimo work and a sense of peace and calm.

All sections of the choir added great value to the whole and were thoroughly prepared by David Gostick for this memorable performance. The tenors were particularly confident and purposeful. Special mention must also be made of Ian Richardson (Organist) whose skillful musicianship brought so much security and confidence to the performance as a whole.

As the light of early evening took on an increasingly buttery hue through the stained glass windows and this Mass for the Dead rested forever on its final vibrations, the audience melted away no doubt in quiet contemplation of something higher. 

Andrew McVittie

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