Insula orchestra and accentus chamber choir under Laurence Equilbey deliver performances of quiet intensity accompanied by images from filmmaker Mat Collishaw.
Christmas comes earlier and earlier these days, and already the musical calendar is beginning to blossom with carol concerts. It was a pleasant change, then, to enjoy a programme that seemed to look back to the ‘memorial’ period of early November, featuring Fauré’s ever popular Requiem, performed by forces from the composer’s native France.
The subject of mortality was also present in Gounod’s last oratorio, Saint François d’Assise, as the second of its two parts portrays the saint’s embracing of ‘sister bodily death’ (the first part dwells on his receiving the stigmata). It’s a short work, lasting only 20 minutes or so, and has an interesting history: although performances in the 1890s were known about, its manuscript was lost, and only rediscovered a century later; its first (and only) recording was by Monday evening’s choir, accentus, under Laurence Equilbey in 2016.
The charming musical material is very much of its time, and full of Gounod’s lush tropes – made even more sentimental by the French text authored by the composer (somehow, religion in French always sounds more fervent). Unsurprisingly, given its devotional nature, the piece is a bit of an exercise in Andante pastorale, and the lilting violin passages might well induce somnolence, but Gounod’s skill with a melody hadn’t left him, even at this late stage in his life, and it contains some pretty tunes that bring to mind Saint-Saëns’ Mon Coeur s’ouvre…, or Bizet’s Au fond du temple saint. Very French; very ‘deuxiéme Empire’.
“It was a pleasant change, then, to enjoy… Fauré’s ever popular Requiem, performed by forces from the composer’s native France”
Under Equilbey’s precise but fluid direction, all of the forces produced a suitably subdued but intense account in which the rich string tones were complemented by the woodwind and brass to conjure either the warm glow of St Francis’ spirituality, or the chilly bereavement felt by his community at his oncoming death. The blend of the chorus was excellent, whether portraying grieving monks or bright angels, and although there was some vibrato colour in the voices, this was no bad thing given the character of the piece. Tenor Amitai Pati took the role of St Francis, and brought to it the perfectly judged quiet edge and veiled power of a sheathed sword.
The tender nature of the Gounod piece is echoed in Fauré’s Requiem, written (albeit slightly piecemeal) about the same time. Here there is no full setting of the blood and thunder of the Dies Irae (although we may assume that, in a liturgical performance, this would still have been sung, perhaps as plainsong), and even the musical breath of hellfire accompanying its textual echo in the ‘Libera me’ is given only a few bars of fortissimo. Equilbey’s interpretation brought all of this to the fore in her direction of the forces onstage, and what was delivered trod the fine line between the often-heard accounts that either play to the crowd by wallowing too much, or try to dismiss the piece’s emotionally charged popularity by rushing through at a no-nonsense pace. Dynamic in both chorus and orchestra was well controlled to ensure that, while tendresse was the watchword, the work’s quiet dramas still played out. Similarly, Fauré’s subtle orchestral textures were deftly spotlit, so that the horn calls in the ‘Sanctus’ shone radiantly, the little woodwind decorations peeped through the string overlay, and the chorus shifts of mood between the dark moments of ‘Libera me’ and the ethereally pure ‘In paradisum’ were noticeable. Baritone John Brancy brought an iron fist in a velvet glove to the solo work, appealingly (and appositely) following Pati’s earlier technique. Oliver Barlow’s treble rendering of ‘Pie Jesu’ was sweetly clear and perfectly sung.
This was a multi-media evening, though, and accompanying each piece was a cinematic augmentation. For the Gounod, this was a simple projection of a sky with moving clouds – by day and night. Mat Collishaw’s material for the Fauré was more complex, and hammered home the images of death and nature. The camera, like a bird in flight, soared around a dramatically lit tower block, peeping into several of its windows to reveal a series of elderly people at their moments of death, surrounded by their loved ones, and visited by visions of rivers. A later scene (during ‘Libera me’) took us to the roof of the tower block, where, like Zoroastrian dead left in ‘Towers of Silence’, the corpses were devoured by vultures. Strong images, certainly, and beautifully shot, but one was left feeling that many (seven, was it?) repeated instances of the same sorrowful, calm, ‘Die me a river’ scene followed by a brief grisly moment seemed a little too much of an obvious parallel of the music.