Review: The Renaissance Choir sings Mozart’s Requiem

St Peter’s Church, Petersfield, Saturday 28 October

Ignoring the lure of ‘Strictly’ and the prospect of a rainy evening, the Renaissance Choir’s loyal followers turned out in force for Saturday’s concert. ‘Sold out’ signs were on display and in his genial introductory remarks the choir’s conductor, Peter Gambie, welcomed a ‘record audience’ to the choir’s ‘home venue’ for a programme in which the major attraction was Mozart’s much-loved Requiem.

True to the choir’s name and the style in which it specialises, the concert opened with a beautiful, committed performance of William Byrd’s five-part Mass. The short movements were persuasively shaped, and longer sections were varied in tempo and vocal colour to match the text. Notable moments included the darker tone at ‘Domine deus’, the arch-shaped span of ‘Cum sancto spiritu’, the warmth of the ‘Sanctus’ and the two energetic ‘Hosanna’s. The final Agnus Dei was magical, involvement etched on the faces of the singers as they brought the work to its prayerful conclusion.

Byrd’s Credo, much the longest movement in the work, was omitted on this occasion – for understandable reasons from the point of view of concert planning, however essential it was in the music’s original liturgical context. Instead, the first half of the concert concluded with Joseph Haydn’s short, rousing Te Deum, written some two centuries later than Byrd’s mass. In those two centuries church music had changed beyond recognition, and if nothing later in Saturday’s programme quite matched the polish of the Byrd, it was only because there were unavoidable compromises in performing music from the classical period without the original orchestral accompaniment. The Te Deum received a lively performance, with the choir members evidently enjoying the extrovert style of the music. Diction was not always clear in this long, unfamiliar Latin text, and entries occasionally took a moment to settle, but the singers launched themselves enthusiastically into the closing fugue, and made the most of the dramatic ‘non confundar’ section. St Peter’s organist Mark Dancer (who had joined the tenors in the choir for the Byrd) ably provided the florid orchestral accompaniment.

The fascination of Mozart’s Requiem lies not only in the greatness of its music but also in the mysterious circumstances of its anonymous commissioning and, of course, the fact that Mozart died during its composition. Süssmayr’s completion includes some quite lightweight movements and a good deal of repetition, but the power of the opening sections is overwhelming, and the choir gave a fine account of them, with sustained singing of the opening ’Requiem’ and precise articulation and tuning in the ever-more elaborate lines of the ‘Christe eleison’. The drama and contrast in movements such as the ‘Rex coelestis’ and ‘Confutatis’ were powerfully communicated, whilst the ‘Lacrymosa’ was broadly shaped and finished with a long-held chord, marking the end of Mozart’s original writing. As well as the organ, the orchestra was represented by a single trombone, stylishly played by Mick Davies – an idea that worked extremely well. He excelled in the big solo in the ‘Tuba mirum’ and also authentically supported the tenor line in the choruses (in the original score, three trombones share the alto, tenor and bass lines), adding clarity and the trombone’s typically dark colour to the part-writing. It is one of the choir’s strengths that it is able to draw soloists from its own ranks. Vanessa McAll, Melissa Wingfield, Michael Richards and Andrew Dickinson made a well-balanced quartet and blended excellently in the ensemble sections, with an evident feeling of rapport. The Recordare was particularly attractive, helped because the flowing accompaniment suited the organ so well. In some other movements, shading that is possible for string players was unavoidably missing, but overall Mark Dancer gave a fine account of the orchestral part, feet as well as hands flying (not once but twice) in the energetic sequences of ‘Quam olim Abrahae’. After the impressive block chords of the ‘Agnus Dei’, the return of the ‘Kyrie’ fugue to the words ‘cum sanctis tuis’ built to a magnificent climax and a long-held final chord, followed by several seconds of silence before the audience showed their appreciation in enthusiastic applause.

Philip Young

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