MIKE WHEELER listens to Brahm's Ein deutsches Requiem from Derby Choral Union 14th May 2022
It was bad luck on Derby Choral Union and recently-appointed conductor Paul Provost that he should have made his debut in October 2019, just months before Covid lockdown. But in their first major concert together since, they clearly had no trouble picking up the threads again.
There was just one work, Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem, sung in German, using Brahms' own version with piano duet, sensitively played by David Woodhouse and Beate Toyka. The opening chorus entry eased itself in gently, the music's consolatory tone also carrying an almost palpable sense of relief to be back performing again. Brahms's scene-setting was handled with tenderness and dignity, while the more energetic passage at “...und kommen mit Freuden” ('...and come with joy') suggesting the reserves of energy that would be drawn on later.
The second movement combined solemnity with a firm sense of purpose. The expressive brightening at “So seid nun geduldig” ('Therefore be patient') was effectively realised, and the two big outbursts were well prepared: first, the reprise of the opening, then “Aber des Herrn Wort...” ('But the word of the Lord...'), leading seamlessly into the first of the work's three great fugues.
The baritone soloist in the third and sixth movements, Stephen Cooper, had a lighter tone than I was expecting: less heavily patriarchal than we often hear, with a totally apt sense of human vulnerability. The work's second fugue, “Der Gerechten Seelen” ('The righteous souls...'), was the one point in the performance where the choir came close to being overbalanced by the piano duet team, and the tenor entry at the start was somewhat under-powered, but the final bars were firm and secure.
“Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” ('How lovely are thy dwellings') is popular enough to have taken on something of an independent existence. It's the work's emotional bright point, and the Choral Union's performance conveyed this, alongside a sense more of hope and aspiration than an aim completely grasped. Soprano Harriet Astbury phrased her fifth-movement solo eloquently, though a slight edge to her tone at less intimate moments suggested a voice more suited to larger spaces.
The sixth movement is another big fresco, to balance the second, and the choir grasped every expressive opportunity with both hands. The outburst at “Dann wird erfüllet...” ('Then shall be fulfilled...') was positively ferocious, and the fugue at ”Herr, du bist würdig...” ('Lord, thou art worthy...') arrived with powerful sense of release. The final movement was an effective wind-down, and the final section, at “Ja, der Geist spricht” ('Yea, saith the spirit') had a convincing sense of both resolution and inwardness.
MIKE WHEELER listens to Duruflé and Ola Gjeilo from Derby Choral Union and its new musical director Paul Provost 23rd November 2019
This was the debut of Paul Provost, Rector Chori of Southwell Minster, as Derby Choral Union's Musical Director - Derby Cathedral, Derby, UK, 23 November 2019; choir and audiences clearly have a lot of good things to look forward to in the years ahead.
We don't hear Derby Choral Union singing a cappella pieces all that often, but it sounded at home in Duruflé's Four Motets on Gregorian Themes. Ubi Caritas had a nice sense of flow, with appreciable changes of tone between the two choral groups. Tota Pulchra Es, for upper voices, was agreeably bright-sounding, though the counterpoint took a few moments to come into focus. A forthright Tu Es Petrus was followed by a smoothly-flowing account of Tantum Ergo.
Norwegian-born American resident Ola Gjeilo has produced some exquisite choral miniatures, but I am yet to be convinced by his larger-scale work. Nights of the Soul comprises two works designed as a pair. Dark Night of the Soul sets words by St John of the Cross. Soprano Hannah Dienes-Williams soared clear in her arching solo lines, but the music's switches between energy and stillness seemed fairly arbitrary, and I got no real sense of where it was going. Luminous Night of the Soul mostly uses a rather twee (and at one point shockingly inept) poem by Charles Anthony Silvestri. The music is mostly sub-Philip Glass, though it did give the choir's rehearsal pianist, David Woodhouse, the chance to shine in an extended cadenza-like solo.
Duruflé's Requiem formed the second half, dedicated to the memory of three former choir members, and of Stephen Cleobury, who died the day before. It is a much darker setting than the one by Fauré, with which it is often superficially compared, and the performance fully engaged with that. The opening Requiem Aeternam was notable for tonal warmth from both the choir and the orchestra, Central England Camerata. In Domine Jesu Christe, the choir moved convincingly from sorrowful opening to an urgency verging on panic at the plea for the departed to be delivered from the lion's mouth. The baritone solo at 'Hostias et preces' was smoothly taken by the choral tenors and basses, as was 'Tremens Factus' in the later Libera Me.
In the Sanctus, as elsewhere, the flexible plainsong rhythms were nicely shaped, and the big, expansive climax was well sustained. Pie Jesu saw Hannah Dienes-Williams centre-stage again, with well-shaped phrases, and this time projecting a mezzo-soprano tone astonishingly mature for a singer still only seventeen.
Agnus Dei saw a slight loss of focus for a moment, but Lux Aeterna was a properly tranquil interlude before the bigger canvas of the Libera Me, in which the singers were fully responsive to the sudden storm, delivering a really punchy account of the Dies Irae section. The concluding In Paradisum was all serene luminosity.