A triumph for magniloquence

CHRISTMAS TO CANDLEMAS: SCHUTZ AND PRAETORIUS

Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel

December 5, 2015

Ensemble Gombert (image: ensemblegombert.com.au)
Ensemble Gombert (image: ensemblegombert.com.au)

Melbourne’s finest choral force had a pretty easy time at its last concert for 2015, a by-now traditional event that can take in music dealing with the Christmas Night event as well as its Gospel postludes up to the Feast of the Purification and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.  On Saturday, the Gombert singers collaborated with some of Danny Lucin’s early music experts from La Compania: a sextet of cornett, sackbuts and three strings supplementing John O’Donnell who directed each segment from a chamber organ.

Central to the program, Schutz’s Weinachtshistorie prefigures later settings of the Nativity story, the most famous being Bach’s wide-ranging Christmas Oratorio.  But where the later composer deviates from the New Testament text to interpolate introductory choruses, a sinfonia, many arias, chorales, a duet or two, some ariosi, even a trio, Schutz sticks to his last and simply tells the story as set down in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.   Most of this task falls to an Evangelist who occupies centre-stage for much of the piece’s length, following a rather strict one-note-one-syllable recitative path with – as far as I could hear – only a couple of fanciful flights – on the word entfloh suggesting the flight to Egypt, and a final flourish at the close of the Evangelist’s contributions where he observes God’s grace in the growing child Jesus.

The full Gombert complement contributed to the work with the solid opening which promises at some length that what follows is concerned with Christ’s birth, and with the conclusion, a hymn of thanks praising God at some length.  The 18 singers also contributed to the 6-part Gloria exclamation from the angels praising God to the shepherds; this is one of eight intermedia where the text is given personalisation – the solitary angel of Katharina Hochheiser addressing the shepherds, later prompting Joseph to exile in Egypt, then ordering him home; an alto/tenor sextet for the shepherds’ response, a tenor trio for the Wise Men questioning the Child’s whereabouts, all four Gombert basses representing the priests and scribes, Michael Strasser’s solo bass for Herod.

Vaughan McAlley’s tenor was not over-pressed by the Evangelist’s line, which is easy-going compared to the same role in the Christmas Oratorio, not to mention the St. Matthew Passion marathon which McAlley has sung with other groups.  His voice is clear, the notes accurately centred, but the actual timbre, the vocal quality lacks assurance and comes across as studied; not tentative, as the singer knows the task in hand, yet lacking that fluency which urges the narrative forward.  Hochheiser’s first angelic address made a positive impact of agility, but for a fair while I could not distinguish any specific word: fricatives, plosives, consonants of any kind were absent from the vocal output which had only two Baroque violins vying for attention.   Better followed with the semi-recitative encouragements to Joseph and a less aggressive string support.

Still, the impression of Schutz’s score in this reading was of an often dour construct, lightened by the choral bracketing.  La Compania contributed with a flawless sonic mix that could have been amplified to the fabric’s benefit, particularly with some woodwind colour like recorders or a buzzing dulcian or two.

In the night’s second part, the ensemble sang three Michael Praetorius motets: the rarely-heard Jesaia dem Propheten das geschah, and two more familiar workings of well-known melodies in the double-choir Von Himmel hoch da komm ich her and the impressive 9-part Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern.   Full fruits of the Venetian school and the Gabrielis’ influence, these sumptuous complexes brought a seasonal richness to the Gomberts’ celebration, balancing the spartan directness of Schutz’s bare-bones narrative with its very welcome interpolations.  Despite the body’s modest numbers, O’Donnell’s ensemble handles these grand soundscapes with more elegance and clarity than most other bodies with many times the number of participants.

O’Donnell introduced the two final anthems with a Pachelbel chorale-prelude for Von Himmel hoch and a solid Buxtehude chorale fantasia on Wir schon leuchtet; both tests of digital exactness and linear distinction.  For this music, you could not hope for a more informed and able executant.

Post-concert, the night took a turn for the bizarre when the audience found that Xavier’s security operations – with both the Ensemble Gombert and the Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra at work in the grounds – had closed off the gates.  It’s one way to treat your guests, I suppose, but suggests an unnerving lack of consideration for others that stands clearly in opposition to the college’s self-proclaimed aim of producing career altruists.