There was a certain poignancy in the performance of a double Requiem billing. Coming the day after London’s latest terror attack, the grief and remembrance felt in the opening minute of silence seeped into much of the emotion of both Duruflé & Fauré’s memorial masses. This was a concert with meaning.

Jérémie Rhorer © Chris Christodoulou
Jérémie Rhorer
© Chris Christodoulou

But it was also a concert, and business must go on: the Rodolphus Choir and the Philarmonia Orchestra under Jérémie Rhorer settled in to the opening Introit. Setting the two French Requiems together is becoming a slightly tired mix. There’s a grandness to both Verdi and Mozart’s offerings that set the difficult text in a majestic and almost terrifying way, balanced by the sweetness and delicacy of the lighter passages such as those in Mozart’s Recordare, and some of this grandness sets off the more reflective French works very well. But there is a privacy and inwardness in both Duruflé’s & Fauré’s offerings that takes the place of this almost regal mourning, which asks for a certain sensitivity. Both orchestra and the enormous chorus – of well over a hundred – dazzled in the moments of swell, but the inexperience and youth of the Rodolfus Choir was evident in their weaker, quieter moments. 

Almost all of Duruflé’s themes come from traditional chant, and its sonority was carried well by the massed voices. Indeed, these sections had the most variety and beauty. The opening Introit had a beautiful stillness in the voice parts that jarred wonderfully with a restless orchestral underlay. This stillness occasionally faltered into feebleness; for such a large choir, quiet passages occasionally felt unsupported and breathy, particularly in the soprano section. The Requiem requires softness and blade-like pierce in equal measures, and this balance was not always quite struck. 

A Requiem in concert is a slightly odd fish, conforming neither to the position of, say, an oratorio but neither of a religious work in practice. Both orchestra and choir were often in danger of becoming so swept up with the rousing, swelling passages (particularly in the Kyrie and Sanctus) that they become almost filmic in delivery. It’s a hard line to stick to: the whole work veered between being incredibly engaging and lacking dynamism. Rhorer did his best to keep both parts together and achieved some truly divine moments of utter beauty, particularly in In Paradisum, which was effortlessly paced 

Fauré’s Requiem was much better: although the tenors felt a little thin at times, the overall impression was of less stagnation and more energy all round. The soprano-held “lux” mid-way through Agnus Dei was exquisitely pure – not for nothing did Gramophone once call the Rodolfus Choir “unspeakably beautiful”. It was easy, at times, to imagine them as that heavenly host of angels.

The performance was not much enhanced by slightly uninspiring soloists: Elizabeth Watts, as the emblem of innocence, was charming in Fauré’s Pie Jesu but less so in Durfulé’s offering, sounding out of comfortable range and lacking the depth so much more resonant in her higher notes. Meanwhile, Jean-Sébastien Bou as a baritone of anguish struggled to fill the space with any real impetus, despite some feisty singing in Fauré’s Libera me. The real stars of the night were the Philharmonia Orchestra: both in section and in solo moments, their virtuosity and lightness of touch were wonderfully balanced.  

Following the concert’s dedication, it was also poignant that both Requiems finish with a blissful In Paradisum; Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem” (Choirs of angels shall receive you, and with Lazarus, once a pauper, you shall have eternal rest). A beacon of hope in dark times, indeed.