Mozart Requiem & Exsultate Jubilate
with guest artist Carolyn Sampson
Saturday 6 July 2019
Concert review by John D Williams | 7 July 2019
A capacity audience greeted the conductor, Nigel Perrin, as he took to the stage for last Saturday evening’s concert in Wells Cathedral. The vaulted nave with its ornate carvings and stained glass is a magical place to be on a warm summer’s evening, and its dimensions, by design or accident, produce an acoustic that is ideal for supporting and carrying the unaccompanied human voice.
Anything involving an orchestra can be tricky and result in a wash of sound for the majority of the audience, but this did not turn out to be the case; partly due to the skill of the performers, but also, largely, to the choice of repertoire. The 80-strong Bath Bach Choir, Southern Sinfonia and a fine team of vocal soloists presented a programme of 18th-century music focusing on Haydn and Mozart. The architectural character inherent in the style allowed for clarity throughout the evening in every part of the building.
The programme was cleverly curated as well. Instead of an orchestral overture, it opened with the Kyrie and Benedictus from one of Haydn’s finest works, the Missa in Angustiis (Mass for Troubled Times) or ‘Nelson Mass’. The opening of the Kyrie was suitably arresting, a literal call to arms, the choir’s precision aided by the fact that the singers had memorised their parts. Then came the passages for solo soprano offering our first opportunity to hear the evening’s principal soloist, Carolyn Sampson. Standing in the pulpit she did not disappoint. The Benedictus was then delivered with reverence and poise by all four soloists in ensemble, finished off with an exuberant Osanna in excelsis from the choir.
This was followed by Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate, written at the age of 16. Although the three-movement piece has a devotional text, it was conceived as a vehicle to highlight the exceptional vocal talent of the solo performer. (In Mozart’s case this was the famous castrato Venanzio Rauzzini who impressed him when they met in Milan; by coincidence Rauzzini spent the latter part of his career in Bath where he directed concerts in the New Assembly Rooms and is buried in Bath Abbey.) With Carolyn Sampson, we knew what we were going to get. The performance was stylish, subtle and virtuosic in every sense. It is not difficult to see why she is lauded as one of the finest sopranos specialising in early repertoire. But she seems to have moved things up a gear. The voice is agile, radiant and rounded. The detail in the articulation of the coloratura in the final Alleluia was jewel-like and astonishing. But there is also warmth, weight and generosity of tone that’s not always the case with singers in this repertoire.
The whole of the second part of the evening was devoted to Mozart’s Requiem in D minor in the oft-performed version completed by his pupil, Franz Süssmayr. It’s a piece shrouded in mystery as it is Mozart’s final unfinished work. The informative programme notes not only placed it in context but traced the origins of its mythical status back to the composer himself. In failing health in the summer of 1791, Mozart started to attribute sinister connotations to the commissioning of the piece by an anonymous patron. He died in December of the same year. Today it endures as a staple of the choral repertoire and while there are some staples that cannot be derailed in performance, Mozart’s Requiem can fall flat.
Nigel Perrin doesn’t do dull! We were treated to a thrilling performance. The choice of speeds perfectly balanced the stylistic constraints of the music with the need to be intelligible. Consequently the performance delivered all of the light and shade in the text. It’s a considerable task for composer and performer alike since it covers everything associated with the afterlife, from the Day of Judgement to the serenity of eternal peace. Thus the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) was terrifying but delivered with refinement. This was not the nightmare conjured in Verdi’s later setting, rather an apocalyptic vision handpainted on Meissen porcelain. In the Confutatis in the midst of the accursed being given over to bitter flames, there was restraint, tenderness and vulnerability in the pleading interjections of ‘voca me…’ (call me with the blessed).
Such choral precision does not happen overnight. These were well-trained singers, whose director made sure that the sound produced in every vocal part was clear, supported and homogenous, unafflicted by any excessive vibrato. At the same time they didn’t sound over-drilled to the point of being robotic. There was flexibility and apparent spontaneity. All of which comes from a long relationship with a conductor who must be one of the most compelling directors of musical forces in the UK.
Then there were the soloists. Stephen Connolly’s bass traded resonance with the beautifully executed trombone solo in the Tuba Mirum to great effect and went on to underpin some exemplary ensemble work. The tenor Nathan Vale’s moments were all well-judged and balanced in ensemble and admirably authoritative and commanding in solo passages. Alison Kettlewell proved to be a wonderful velvety mezzo-soprano filling the space with ease and Carolyn Sampson excelled as expected. The Recordare provided the platform for how effective they were together. They didn’t compete; neither did they submit to a form of underdeveloped consort singing. Chorus and vocal soloists inevitably demanded our attention.
Southern Sinfonia, led by Simon Chalk, is reputed to be the leading professional chamber orchestra in the south. Little wonder then, after the vault had carried away the echo of the final sublime ‘... quia pius es.’ (Thou art merciful) to a place of silence, the audience rose to their feet.
Haydn Kyrie & Benedictus from the ‘Nelson Mass’
Mozart Exsultate Jubilate
Carolyn Sampson soprano
Alison Kettlewell mezzo-soprano
Nathan Vale tenor
Stephen Connolly bass
Nigel Perrin conductor