The Swiss composer Carl Rütti is the latest in a notable line of composers to have been commissioned by the Bach Choir, with support from the Swiss Cultural Fund, to write a large choral work. The remit was for a piece of about 20 minutes in length, but the finished work lasts just less than an hour, and employs the choir, two soloists and an orchestra of strings with a harp and an organ.
Drawing on the traditional text of the Latin Mass for the Dead, Rütti 's Requiem offers a personal view of death and grief, aiming to create a work that is theatrical as well as musical. With a choir of nearly 200, moving everybody around even such a large building would not have been practical, but the two excellent soloists, the soprano Katharine Fuge and the baritone Edward Price, could be heard from around the building. The work opened with Fuge hauntingly intoning the introit from the west end of the cathedral, before processing up the nave to join the main body of performers.
Her vocal control was impressive, coupled with a pure but rich tone that opened the piece with an immediate impact. The choral writing, mostly in eight parts, uses a broad harmonic palette, at times very English in the style of Vaughan Williams or Howells, and at times very un-English in its depth of expression. The Bach Choir rose to the challenges with a luxuriant tone from top to bottom that wasn't forced and gave every sense that their conductor, David Hill, had prepared them carefully.
It's not easy to to label this music (post-minimalism?). There is greater harmonic movement than in Tavener, and little repetition except for dramatic effect, such as the steady tread of the In Paradisum, but a lot of the writing for strings was reminiscent of Arvo Part, particularly in the fluttering haloes of the Sanctus. Only twice did the music veer towards a "bankable" tune, more so in the Agnus Dei, but this did not obtrude on the whole. Even the blackbird heard towards the end seemed a logical part of the concept.
The mood had been set by a first half of Mozart, Mahler and Richard Strauss, carefully chosen to complement the new work. The choir and Southern Sinfonia both shone, although the strings were driven along at a pace in Strauss's Metamorphosen, perhaps to let the final section's impassioned lyricism carry a greater impact.
A rare premiere, this, in that almost everybody seemed to want to hear a second performance. Happy the composer who achieves that without compromising his style.