The Choral Arts Society of Washington gave its last concert of the season at the Kennedy Center on Sunday, and it was a barnburner. Three rarely heard works from the late Romantic period surrounded a choral chestnut that’s performed more often than it probably deserves.
Fauré’s abbreviated, saccharine setting of the Requiem Mass was the marquee draw, so familiar that the large chorus sang it from memory. The soprano section distinguished itself with a pristine, boy-treble sound in the “Te decet hymnus” and “In paradisum” movements. Soprano Laura Choi Stuart phrased the “Pie Jesu” with musical simplicity, and baritone Trevor Scheunemann gave polished warmth to his more extensive solo parts.
Associate conductor Brandon Straub led an incisive rendition of Lili Boulanger’s quasi-medieval setting of “Psalm 24,” accompanied starkly by harp, organ and brass. Here the Choral Arts tenors floated a soft, high-soaring line quite deftly. A short neo-Baroque “Sarabande” by Saint-Saëns featured the Choral Arts Orchestra’s strings, showing some deficits in intonation but with a pleasing solo for concertmaster Karen Johnson.
The climax of the concert was the outlandish “Psalm 47” by Florent Schmitt, one of the lesser members of Les Apaches, the rebellious group that also included Ravel. Fueled by an apocalyptic clatter of percussion and brass, Schmitt’s full-throated choral writing is perfectly suited to a chorus this size. Soprano Alexandria Shiner sang resplendently in the extended middle section, her warm, luscious voice carrying over the loudest forte.
But as delightful as it was to hear this work, Schmitt’s choices later in life poison the enjoyment of his music. He accepted commissions from the collaborationist Vichy regime during World War II, and at a concert in 1933, he and other Nazi sympathizers heckled the composer Kurt Weill, who had just fled Germany, with shouts of “Vive Hitler!” This piece is from about 30 years earlier, but it was hard not to view this forceful, ecstatic music through that lens.