Review: Forceful work concludes music festival

“Into the Rose Garden” Concert 25, Canberra International Music Festival Fitters’ workshop May 18. Reviewed by Helen Musa

“BLESSED are they that mourn, for they shall have comfort,” run the comforting opening words of Brahms’ “German Requiem” in the English translation by Elizabeth Traquair and RH Benson that was used in last night’s final concert of the 2014 Canberra International Music Festival.

Tenor Christopher Saunders, detail of photo by Peter Hislop

Tenor Christopher Saunders, detail of photo by Peter Hislop

This was the message that festival director Christopher Latham had wished to convey throughout his festival and particularly in this final concert as he led us out of the fires of war and into the rose garden of peace and reconciliation.

In this context, the German ambassador, Christoph Müller, could not help but observe that 2014 marked significant anniversaries for once-divided Berlin and for the EU.

Latham restyled the Brahms “an Australian Requiem” because the early performances of this work were almost certainly in the English vernacular. This powerful work, performed by The Wallfisch Band, AcO2, the massed Canberra Festival and soloists Simone Riksman and Alexander Knight, is loved both for its rich, complex harmonies and for the fact that we can actually understand what it’s all about, for Brahms, in the Protestant tradition, deliberately avoided the Latin Mass.

Conducted by Roland Peelman with full theatricality at sensitivity to every nuance of the music, the seven movements were performed with period instruments to an English text handed around to the audience.

The full-bodied power of the opening movement confirmed the apparently contradictory words “they that sow in tears reap in joy,” followed by the dramatic second movement bringing to bear to bear the full might  and power of the orchestra  and massed voices –the Oriana Chorale, the Resonants, Igitur Nos, Kompactur, Vox and the Sprogis Woods Smith Young artist.

In the third movement, bass-baritone Knight turned around the optimism of the previous movement with his clearly enunciated vision of mortality (“all my days here are as a handbreadth to Thee”) mixed with the motif of hope, introduced at the end.

Movement V, introduced after Brahms first wrote the Requiem, was delivered with quiet dignity by Riksman, who been sighted in the front seats shaking her head to the rhythm of the previous movements before assuming the podium.

Perhaps the high point of the Requiem was Movement VI, where Knight, supported by expressive cellos and bass, sang to us very directly, as if he really did have a good piece of news to impart in “Lo, I unfold unto you a mystery.” In this exciting and almost operatic movement, Knight’s immaculate enunciation brought us more of the fire than the rose , as he sang, “we shall all be changed in a moment”. Peelman mustered the full force of the percussion, orchestra and chorus to bring to a forceful conclusion the mature and balanced words, “Blessed the dead.”

But if you thought it was safe to go home at this point, no. Characteristically, director Latham chose to conclude his last Canberra International Music Festival with a sweet and tender song, sung by tenor Christopher Saunders and rearranged by Calvin Bowman from of the one of the few remaining works by Gallipoli serviceman/composer. W. Denis Browne. “It’s the love song of the festival – the song of the rose,” the director said, and so it seemed to be. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.


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