8th March, Hamer Hall, Melbourne

This was certainly a concert of grand ambitions, marrying Mozart’s epic Requiem mass with Bartok’s masterpiece, the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. Though not immediately clear, it is possible to find common ground between these pieces; both deal with the juxtaposition of forces as an integral part of their sound palette. They tread a similar path in their exploration of a dark, dramatic soundscape, though musical language is of course incredibly varied. Not so with the opening piece – Wagner’s Prelude to the Mastersingers of Nuremberg – which felt rather out of place on the program despite beautifully rich sonorities from the brass.

Both in the Bartok and the Mozart, the conductor and orchestra seemed to take a little while to get into their stride. The opening Andante tranquillo of the Bartok, in particular, seemed rather angular and a little bereft of melodic direction. However, this was more than made up for as the piece progressed, with brisker movements displaying cheekily discursive playing from the strings. Edward Gardner demanded a wonderful range of dynamics, and both he and the orchestra fully embraced Bartok’s stereophonic vision. The wonderful thing about this music is an exploration of colour, and this was always the central focus. The third, Adagio movement was stunningly eerie, and on more that one occasion I found myself amazed at the sounds Bartok and Gardner achieved by the combination of instrumental timbres. Gardner’s verbal introduction to this piece was great – informative and passionate. I really hope that it encouraged some less-experienced listeners to really give Bartok’s music a go!

For most of the audience, of course, the Requiem was the big event (I have to admit, it was for the Bartok that this concert was so prominently marked in my diary), and the orchestra didn’t disappoint. Though taking the first few movements to really settle into a feeling of absolute cohesion of intention, both choir and orchestra performed with a sense of drama and gusto. Tempos seemed on the brisk side, but this only seemed to add to the urgency and foreboding in the choral movements. Soloists Elena Xanthoudakis, Sally-Anne Russell, Andrew Staples and Matthew Rose were many not quite as spectacular as I would have liked on their own, but more than made up for the when singing as a quartet. Particularly impressive were the Recordare and Benedictus, where the blend of voices was stunning.