Review: Faure Requiem at Philharmonic Hall ****
It turned out to be a concert of two halves (literally and – despite the all-French line-up - musically) which entertained a practically full Philharmonic Hall on a decidedly chilly November evening.
The first a burst of dynamic energy very much in the present, the second a soothing, soulful hand-held voyage into the hereafter.
Conductor Ben Glassberg certainly brings energy to the party, here hurtling on to the stage between the first violins as if he’d been fired from a catapult and so eager for the off that some players were still settling in their seats as he raised his baton.
Ernest Giraud, who compiled Bizet’s Carmen Suite after his friend’s untimely death, may not have been prepared either as it quickly became apparent the work’s usual order had been reconfigured.
Thus, as Glassberg raised his baton, it was the Toreadors’ theme – played with chutzpah and at the speed of a cheetah chasing its prey – that burst forth, rather than the usual shimmering fate motif of the opera's Act 1 prelude.
Following an Eric Morecambe route (all the right sections, just not necessarily in the right order) the suite’s Aragonaise was supplanted by Les Dragons d’Alcala (the start of a good evening for the bassoons) followed by the Intermezzo which had lovely clarity through harp and flute and some nicely shaped lines.
Then came the Aragonaise, complete with fireworks bursts of percussion, snake charmer oboe from Jonathan Small and passionate strings.
And finally, what appeared to be the sinuously charming Seguidilla took the place of the whip quick bullfighters’ march.
In a similarly discombobulating turn of events, Fauré’s Pavane was tucked into Seguidilla’s slipstream without leaving a proper pause for applause between the two works, leading to some confusion – had we heard the Fauré or not?
Evidently we had, as when Glassberg bounded back on again (following a hiatus for orchestral additions - and a good number of latecomers – to find their seats), it was to tease us with the opening notes of Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, delivered with tension and a delicious sense of anticipation.
What followed was a demonic delight - an irrepressibly sparky and swaggering performance, vividly cinematic (“I could see the film in my mind as I listened” one woman told me at the interval) with crisply punctuated moments and bassoons and clarinet in particular in lovely jaunty form.
Jaunty is probably the last word you’d associate with a Requiem, so the interval proved a much-needed space for recalibration amid drinks, ice cream…and debate about just what did happen to the Pavane.
Fauré described his Requiem as “a lullaby of death”.
And, unlike Mozart, Berlioz or Verdi, it’s low on fire and brimstone drama, its composer opting to ‘go gentle’ into that good night – less the full-blooded wrath of a dies irae and more serene acceptance, exemplified by its beatific Pie Jesu, here sung with the wonderful bell-like clarity of a chorister by soprano Eleonore Sian Cockerham, supported by sympathetic orchestral accompaniment.
Baritone Jacques Imbrailo similarly offered pleasing clarity in the Requiem’s O Domine Jesu Christe, and also warmth through his lower registers in its Libera Me.
Meanwhile the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir produced a lovely warm, well-balanced sound when singing en masse, with the sopranos particularly impressing with their ‘lux aeterna’ entrance in the work’s Agnus Dei. In fact, the entire following ‘requiem aeternum’ section was beautifully delivered by voices and orchestra.
The whole was serenely underpinned by the Choir’s former chorusmaster Ian Tracey, not wielding a baton anymore but offering the voices pillowy, tranquil support on the hall’s Rushworth and Dreaper organ.
The Phil’s new chorusmaster Matthew Hamilton (who officially has the rather more splendid title of director of choirs and singing) appeared, briskly, from stage right at the end to commend the choir to the audience.
And if this Saturday evening performance is anything to go by, the baton has been passed on into good hands.