November 2017: Duruflé and Dvořák

Saturday 18 November 2017

Exeter Cathedral

The twinned cities of Exeter and Bad Homburg came together on Saturday evening for an excellent choral concert, given by the Exeter Festival Chorus and the Erlöserkirche Bachchor, directed by Nigel Perrin. The programme, comprising Duruflé’s Requiem and Dvořák’s Mass in D, was performed using the original versions of both works, accompanied by Andrew Millington on the cathedral organ.

Maurice Duruflé based much of his Requiem on Gregorian plainchant, using the well-known work by Fauré as a model in terms of its restraint. It is not an easy work to bring off, but the combined choirs did so, demonstrating purity of tone and excellent blend, with confident entries and, when required, considerable dynamic contrasts. The build-up in the Kyrie and the sudden eruption of full choir in the Libera me indicated careful preparation and a thorough understanding of the work, supported by strong but balanced organ accompaniment throughout.

We were treated to sensitive, dramatic solos from Rebecca Smith (mezzo-soprano) in the central Pie Jesu and Julian Rippon (baritone) in the Domine Jesu Christe and Libera me movements, both conveying convincingly the nuances of the Latin text.

The last two movements, Libera me and In Paradisum showed vividly what a large choir can do in terms of contrasts of volume and tone-colour, notably the violent Dies Irae and the ethereal end of the work, the final unresolved chord followed by silence.

Dvořák’s Mass in D is an uneven work, with some moments of brilliance amongst quite a lot of rather uninspired writing. The trick is to emphasise the strengths and gloss over the weaknesses by performing the whole with maximum conviction; Nigel Perrin and the combined choirs managed it well, vividly dramatising the contrasts of volume and tempo, and supported by magisterial organ volume whenever possible. 

The opening Kyrie swung along in the manner of a lullaby, a little too quickly perhaps, but it settled on the reprise.

The Gloria was exciting from the start, with well-handled contrasts in the quieter sections, forthright fugal passages, and a stirring ending with huge organ back-up. The Credo, with its rather folksy melodic style, showed off the contrast between quiet soli melodies from the confident alto section and answering forte ­passages from the rest of the choir. The dramatic Crucifixus chords provided a dramatic wake-up call for the audience. The Sanctus again showed how the large and well-trained chorus managed the dynamic contrasts of the opening sections. The Benedictus ­in Mass settings is generally given to four solo voices; here the full choir gave it a sotto voce, gentle performance, suddenly galvanised by the final Hosannas.  

In some ways Dvořák left his best till the end; the final Agnus Dei is a beautiful, restrained movement, ending quietly but positively in the home key.

Congratulations to all involved in an uplifting concert. The combined choirs showed great unity of style and purpose, very good blend, and vivid dynamic range. Andrew Millington proved how well he knows the cathedral organ; Nigel Perrin’s direction was expressive and inspirational. A pity then that the audience was smaller than hoped; the absentees missed a treat!

Stephen Bell