Perhaps nobody had actually road-tested the idea of performing only by candlelight inside Cheltenham College’s chapel, but before the Choir of Keble College, Oxford, had even had a chance to sing, organist Edward Higginbottom called down to complain he wasn’t able to see conductor Matthew Martin. In the end, more lights were hurriedly switched on, ruining the visual effect but at least enabling the concert to begin.

Choir of Keble College, Oxford © Keble College
Choir of Keble College, Oxford
© Keble College

The selection of music raised interesting questions about the implied religiosity (or lack of it) in church music. In the case of Fauré’s Messe basse, it’s hard to imagine the composer was as concerned – if at all – with the specifics of the text as he was with the refined grace of the music. A ‘low’ mass it may be, but as an act of expression it’s unequivocally haute couture, the choral equivalent of a fashion statement. Keble College Choir’s response to this was worthy of a catwalk, demonstrating great fluidity in the work’s flowing lines, controlled poise in the phrasing and vividly transparent balance. Stylistically, while it was impossible to take the Kyrie seriously, in the Sanctus and Benedictus Matthew Martin’s light and airy approach to Fauré’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ mass resulted in a performance of considerable prettiness.

The remainder of the concert was, for the most part, at the other end of the form/function continuum. Marcel Dupré was represented by two of his 1916 Quatre Motets. While his take on the eucharistic text O salutaris hostia was passionate but measured (its angular melody occasionally tripping up the sopranos), the rendition of Laudate Dominum – a piece showing off Dupré at his most flamboyantly full-blooded – was enormous, Higginbottom unapologetically crashing chords while the choir sang with such elation it sounded as if the music could hardly contain itself.

In contrast to Fauré, Dupré’s approach to the text is a faithful one, prepared to run riot but never taking his eye off the underlying meaning and import of the words. Duruflé’s Requiem, which concluded the concert, goes further, not only subjecting the texts to intense, very personal, scrutiny, but co-opting into the composition the plainsong chants associated with them for centuries.

We tend to take requiems for granted; we hear them all the time, in sublime performances that tick all the expected boxes and delight our ears, and often fail to acknowledge beneath those attractive surfaces the grief, pain, introspection and supplication at their core. They can be beautiful, of course, but a requiem isn’t a requiem unless it also hurts. And here was the most noticeable gear-shift of the evening, Martin taking the work at a pace that was neither brisk nor ponderous, enabling the choir to mirror Duruflé’s complex musical demeanour with an attitude of elegance matched by solemnity, tapping into extremes of emotional weight.

The falling lines of the Kyrie – surely one of the most fervent of all Kyries – became poignant sighs of melancholy, remaining intimate even during its more hefty outbursts. By contrast, there was no attempt to shy away from the fact that the Domine Jesu Christe is about as close to the overblown histrionics of Verdi’s Requiem as the work gets, Keble College Choir responding in kind, making the most of its wild dramatic swings, their cries of “libera eas” – “save them!” – laden with real desperation. More powerful than this, though, was the way Martin negotiated both the work’s back-and-forth focus on things earthly and heavenly – in the process wonderfully capturing the inward-looking anguish and outward-looking hope at the heart of the Requiem – as well as the work’s gradually softening and sublimating tone.

This was deeply impressive, though it has to be said that, for much of the work, while the organ certainly accompanied the choir it rarely enhanced it, Higginbottom opting for bland colours and a workaday performance that, on a couple of occasions, was worryingly out of step with Martin’s pulse (perhaps the lighting issues were never quite resolved). That being said, there was something masterful, even magical, about the overall transition through the final few movements, and Higginbottom’s playing in the Lux aeterna was very lovely. Duruflé’s bold breaking of the music’s heaven-bound trajectory in the agitated frightfest that is the Libera me here became something overwhelming, the choir (particularly the tenors) heralding while at the same time aghast at the impending end of days. In paradisum just about lived up to its elevated title, with a poignant sense of duet between choir and organ, ending the concert in a hallowed haze that felt pure and serene.