Celebration of the displaced

JACOBEAN COMPOSERS IN THE LOW COUNTRIES

Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel

Saturday October 28

The old order changeth – or so it seems with this excellent ensemble.  For many comfortable years  –  comfortable for us admirers  –  this choir has maintained its own timbre, such that you can usually pick the group out from the ruck: piercingly true sopranos, a steady and prominent alto line, a resonant quartet of basses, and tenors that negotiate the notes, even if diffidently.  Further, the Gomberts’ control of material extended across the centuries, well past the time of their namesake and well into the last century; John O’Donnell could take his 18 singers into any landscape and make them sound content and secure.

Much of this had to do with longevity; a solid core remained in the organization’s line-up, no matter what individuals went or returned, and this continuity of service ensured that the ensemble’s calibre of performance suffered minimally, whether a program comprised Flemish masters of the early-to-mid Renaissance or moved into the realms occupied by  contemporary static Scandinavians.  On top of this, the choir began as it continued, making no compromises for the sake of attracting a wider audience but sticking to its communal last of taking up challenges and producing readings of high musicianship without the slightest trace of populism.

This single-mindedness hasn’t changed,. evident from this most recent program given on Saturday night.  O’Donnell and his singers – the number increased slightly to 19 – worked through a focused series of works by recusant composers (well, two of them were; the other used Catholicism as the public justification for his exile) who left England for the more tolerant climate of the Netherlands and Belgium.  Mind you, two of the three composers programmed got short shrift.  O’Donnell played John Bull’s Praeludium voor Laet ons met herten reijne on a chamber organ which emphasized the piece’s progress into angularity and abruptness.  But the piece lasts only about three minutes.  Peter Philips enjoyed a longer hearing with four motets, but the recital’s main emphasis fell on works by Richard Dering – 20 of them.

Right from the opening bars of Philips’ Ave verum corpus setting, you could tell that the Gomberts’ sound had changed; in this work, the suspicion turned to certainty on the word praegustatum where the advent of at least three new sopranos – new to my experience – had altered the line’s timbre, to the point where you wondered about the possibility of someone operating slightly below the set pitch. The effect was hard to pin down because, in this piece for five voices, there are two soprano lines.  Something of the same uncertainty occurred in the following Christus resurgens where the final high notes of the sopranos’ overlapping Alleluia – Fs in my music – missed out on true congruence.

Media vita, set in a more sombre, lower tessitura, made a more favourable impression, possibly because of a calmer dynamic in operation, but the last offering from this composer, Ascendit Deus, held some more flashes of rough delivery, so that the customary smoothness and consistency of product was not sustained.

For the two brackets of Dering motets, O’Donnell accompanied the choir with the provided continuo, occasionally giving his singers a brief respite with an interlude. In the first, pre-interval group, an opening brace of O bone Jesu and O nomen Jesu made a favourable impression with several passages of quietly assertive declamation.  The sopranos didn’t pick out their opening to Jesu dulcis memoria carefully enough; the tenor lines in Quando cor nostrum sounded unusually thin, then pretty tired in the second line of Desidero te millies although the chromatic slipping at the end of that motet came across with fine accomplishment.

The composer’s works proved full of surprises in word-setting, rarely lingering over a phrase and all too happy to get past an awkwardness like incompraehensaque bonitas with some dispatch.   But even a bucketful of compositional felicities could not disguise a dominance of the choir’s texture by the top line/s with an agreable murmuring from the bass quartet but no commensurately prominent counterweight; it made you long for the presence of old-time regulars like Jerzy Kozlowski and Tim Daly.

The second group of Dering motets began with a fine reading of Anima Christi which alternated solo voices with the full choir, the sudden emergence of individuals a welcome change, although something odd happened in the final speravi in te where the combined texture appeared to undergo a dynamic gap.  The same technique worked to more confident effect in the following Vox in Rama and the women’s voices carried the burden for Dixit Agnes with as much assurance and directness of address as in years past.  A fine emotional flare informed the horticultural rhapsody of rubicunda plusquam rosa, Lilio canbdidior that concluded the deceptive Ave virgo gloriosa where the singers dipped into a sequence based on the Song of Songs.

Approaching the end, the well-exercised singers found sufficient energy to outline the suspension chain in Contristatus est Rex David where the king mourns his faithless son. But the central O sanctum signum Cruce, adoramus te in Omnem super quem returned us to the opening qualms about the upper line’s pitch, a problem that continued into the final Ave Maria.

This year is the 400th anniversary of the publication of Dering’s five-voice Cantiones sacrae and I can’t imagine that another celebration of this event would be as carefully researched and prepared as this program was.  Certainly, the night shone a battery of lights in a dark place as Dering is not a name that emerges often in Catholic choral ceremonies, although he is  –  somewhat perversely  –  not so much of a stranger in the Anglican church.

The Gomberts have cut down on their Xavier College Chapel appearances in recent times; this year, they are presenting only three nights there, and mounting more programs in the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Salon.  You can only hope that the new choir members settle more firmly into the body’s long-time high level of performance, even though the opportunities for such acclimatization in the rich Xavier acoustic are becoming more rare.