It’s easy to think of the requiem settings by Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Duruflé as being basically the same piece but with different notes. Both follow a similar structural pattern, with the same choice of texts, matching solos, and even to the extent that both have particularly sumptuous themes for their Agnus Dei, and the altos kick off the Offertorium in both. They’re often performed together, as was the case in Durham University Choral Society’s Michaelmas term concert this evening, and although I’m still not convinced that this works, director Mike Summers and his choir did their best to draw out the differences between the two.
Duruflé’s setting doesn’t have the popular appeal of Fauré’s big melodies, and it’s a good deal harder for the choir and organist, full of fiddly rhythmic shifts, but it’s a far more interesting piece, and it was this more challenging work that produced the best singing of the evening from the choir. Duruflé had a firm grounding in the plainsong tradition, and as well as incorporating the Gregorian melodies into his requiem, he conveys something of the speech-patterns of the chant too, and this came across well in the way the choir handled Duruflé’s fluid rhythms.
Mike Summers allowed the choir plenty of room for a really big, dramatic sound in the most exciting parts of the Duruflé – the lions of the Offertorium were wonderfully fierce. The bright tones of the young student voices brought an attractive lightness to some of the dense choral writing, particularly in the more exposed passages, such as the “Quam Olim Abrahae”, and the Lux Aeterna was appropriately radiant. Despite an overall light sound, the altos bloomed on the very low passage at the end of the Libera me.
It’s easy to wallow in the luscious melodies of Fauré’s Requiem, but Mike Summers allowed no self-indulgence this evening; everything sprang lightly along instead of getting bogged down in emotion. Fauré’s setting is, after all, supposed to be about consolation for the bereaved, and there was plenty of that in the gentle swing of the Offetorium and the Agnus Dei, The brooding “Requiem aeternum” though was full of tension, particularly when it returned at the end of the Agnus Dei, setting up for a lovely release into the more relaxed music that follows. The basses gave a strong foundation to the Kyrie and the In Paradisum was marked by some lovely sustained singing.
For the Fauré, the choir were rearranged, mixing up the voice parts and this worked very well, producing a nicely blended sound in the full sections and giving greater breadth to individual parts – the sopranos came out particularly well from this arrangement. The choir had already showed good disciplined singing in the Duruflé, with particularly tidy phrase endings, and they retained this when the parts were mixed up.
Fauré’s orchestrated version of his requiem came later, and is probably the chief culprit in the piece’s excessive sentimentalisation, so it’s always nice to hear it in its original version for organ. Unfortunately though, the rearrangement of the choir seemed to present a few sightline problems between organist Zac Clark and Mike Summers. Duruflé’s organ accompaniment vividly enhances the vocal parts, and although there is an orchestrated version, the accompaniment is full of such idiomatic organ writing, it’s hard to imagine it being played on anything else. Zac Clark’s introduction to the Offertorium was quietly chilling, and he was warmly lyrical in the Agnus Dei.
The two soloists, James Quitmann and Sophie Kidwell are both second-year students, and in a year after a particularly strong cohort of solo singers has just left, it’s good to see another group of exciting voices coming to prominence. Sophie Kidwell sang her two Pie Jesu settings with a full well-rounded tone, and plenty of passion. Although there was plenty of richness in her lower register in the Duruflé, she seemed more comfortable with the slightly higher Fauré version. James Quitmann’s fabulously rich voice was glorious in the sustained Hostias solos, with growth and movement through his long notes, and an absolute dream to listen to in the Fauré Libera Me but was equally impressive on the angular and energetic solo in Duruflé’s Libera Me.
The dynamics of university life mean that student groups have to adjust quickly to the annual turnover of membership but this year’s Choral Society seems already welded into a secure, well-blended unit and I’m looking forward to their big Epiphany term concert.