MUSIC FROM 4 TO 40 PARTS
Move Records MD 3437
I’ve been watching and hearing tenor Vaughan McAlley sing for the past 200 years, as a member of groups like the Ensemble Gombert and the Choir of the Collins St. Scots’ Church, as well as observing him cope with roles as hefty as Bach’s Evangelists. He has also been a long-time producer and sound engineer for Move Records. But I believe that this CD represents my first experience of his work as a composer; it contains a large number of those compositions ascribed to him on the Australian Music Centre’s web-site.
Most of the music is vocal/choral with relieving forays into part of McAlley’s String Quartet of 2015 and the complete Four Chorale Preludes for Piano, written for Michael Kieran Harvey. While the majority of this CD’s non-instrumental tracks comprise a cappella singing, a few involve some slight instrumental support – a recorder here, a string quartet there. On paper, it looks like a considerable miscellany; in actuality, the disc’s totality represents a backward move – some centuries back, in fact.
The first offering is a setting for 5 voices of Christina Rossetti’s A Birthday, written for the wedding of Kate McBride and Tom Reid who take top and bottom lines respectively in this work. We are plunged into the world of Renaissance polyphony which suggests both English madrigals and something more Continental – not Josquin, as McAlley’s annotation implies, but something further south. It’s a well accomplished composition, with loads of vocal mobility; it’s just that it seems odd – a Tudor soundscape to underpin a Romantic poem.
Track 2 is A Madrigal, which uses words by Alexander Pope that have been set by a more well-known composer. Where’er you walk is written for 4 voices and is another piece that straddles several practices and schools. By now, you become aware of a tendency in the composer’s writing to give great exposure to his soprano or top line, sometimes suggestive of Allegri stratospherics. Again, the polyphony is efficient and the standard of performance competent; which you’d expect with the composer being one of the participants.
To Rosamounde, a balade uses a Chaucer text, setting for 8 voices one of the poem’s three stanzas. This work, full-bodied in character and one of the disc’s most two monumental constructs, is performed by the Ensemble Gombert conducted by John O’Donnell and it brings back memories of that group’s richly rewarding recitals held at Xavier College Chapel for many years. The stanza octet is set lucidly with both the linear meshing and the interplay sensible, utilising compositional devices with admirable facility. McAlley has added an optional extra, a coda for 18 voices to the last line, Thogh ye to me ne do no daliaunce, which is suggestive of Monteverdi, the Gabrielis, and – of course – Tallis. At this multiphonic point, the words become meaningless because the vocal complex becomes an end in itself. The effect is sumptuous, the massive piling up of individual voices most impressive to aurally bathe in. My only difficulty is that the setting loses its link with the English poet’s chirpy teasing.
The chorale preludes in Harvey’s hands are a delight. There is no way a contemporary composer dealing in this form can avoid the shadow of Bach and McAlley makes no attempt to do so. The first essay takes the melody of Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit and puts it in the centre of a contrapuntal web, weaving a soprano line in triplets and a solid bass that begins in measured pace but then enters more fully into the action, taking over the soprano triplets to underpin the complex; the work comes to a broad, Busoni-like conclusion The melody is at the top for Allein Gott in der Hoh’ sei Ehr’ with a quirky five-note motif dodging around the entire keyboard’s range and offering a jerky complement to the simple melody line. Heilig, heilig, heilig also keeps the chorale tune in the soprano, while underneath is a susurrus of arpeggios that bring to mind a Chopin study or six, as well as Schumann’s Widmung. O Lamm Gottes unschuldig has the tune in a soprano-tenor canon within a slow repeated chord backdrop. McAlley concludes this piece with a fugue and the hymn tune floating above/inside it, which strikes me as a reflection of the opening chorus to the St, Matthew Passion where the children singers come in with this same tune above the ferment of Komm, ihr Tochter.
Harvey invest his wide-ranging sympathy and superlative technique into these works, handling the splayed chord moments carefully but maintaining each prelude’s forward motion and realising the appealing gravity in three of the four. My references to Busoni and the others are not meant to be derogatory or emphasize any derivativeness; this set of four piano pieces is situated in a compositional ambience that clearly appeals to McAlley and he inhabits it comfortably, able and deft in manipulating its tropes even if he shows little interest in pursuing Bach off-road into his more taxing chromatic labyrinths. Further assisting in their success, Harvey’s interpretations are both masterful and compelling.
The musical language moves back further for the next work, a setting for 5 voices of three verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Again, you sense the debt to Tallis, down to the opening identifying sentence and setting of the verses’ initial Hebrew words. A few unexpected modulations or discords – for example in the second sentence, the setting of individual words like moverunt and Samech – interrupt an otherwise conventional harmonic scheme.
With the Lento from a string quartet written in 2015, you might be forgiven for thinking that McAlley has simply moved his writing wholesale from vocal to instrumental, given the slow chorale nature of the opening strophes As the movement progresses, you get the same impression of careful voice-leading: all that’s missing are words. Then pizzicati appear above a rephrasing of previous melodic material, until the plucking takes over completely. In the last segment, McAlley returns to the chorale movement of the opening with silences to punctuate the phrases, moving the instruments into their top ranges before shifting to a low-level, brief coda. The Four Seasons Quartet – violins Sunkyoung Kim and Helen Bower, viola Phoebe Green, cello Nora Brownrigg – give a committed reading of this score which comes across as something of a hodgepodge, despite its economy of melodic material.
It’s back to the Renaissance for In principio erat verbum, a setting of the first two and the 14th verses of Chapter 1 to the Gospel of St. John; familiar to Catholics of a certain age who would recall each Mass being concluded with this Biblical extract (and the intervening verses) as the final prayer in that liturgy. Once again, this is a conventional work with few surprises except that insistence on isolating the soprano above the ruck. I will lift up mine eyes uses the first four verses of Psalm 121 and calls for a soprano soloist (Kate McBride) and string quartet (violins Rachael Hunt and Rachel Garner, viola Shani Williams, cello Alison Both). It begins with yet another Bachian reminiscence: a siciliano instrumental figure before the voice enters. The composer is at some pains to exercise McBride’s highest notes; that’s fine, except that eventually you cannot understand a word in the outer sections of this da capo aria, the singer having one of those ‘English’ sopranos which is accurate enough but sexless and owning very little vibrato.
Back to imitative polyphony for Lord, you have been our dwelling place which employs McAlley’s favoured combination of five a cappella voices. The setting is more dramatic than its predecessors, in its central passage becoming very like Anglican chant, with a later strophe for solo voice, and a moderately active fugal ending. A solo recorder prefaces and gives an obbligato line (a bit of a distraction, in fact) to the four singers of The Lord bless you and keep you, which is mainly a chorale, the piece progressing for the most part in block chords.
For his 40th birthday, the composer proposed to organise a performance of the Tallis 40-part anthem Spem in alium – which may have actually occurred (I wasn’t invited) – but he was advised by friends to write his own piece. Exactly why he took their advice remains unclear, but he did and came up with Omnes angeli: two verses from that primer for mystics and crazies, the Book of Revelation. A performance of this construct took place on October 26, 2013, given by an expanded Ensemble Gombert under John O’Donnell; which group at the same event also took on the Tallis gem and Robert Carver’s 10-part Mass Dum sacrum mysterium. This CD’s last track is a recording, made on that date under the dome at 333 Collins St. Melbourne, of McAlley’s huge work which, like its Tallis inspiration, hits the listener as something of an aural onslaught.
The opening is clear enough as the various choirs interweave and set up a picture of the angels falling down before the Throne in worship. All 40 lines come together to excellent effect at the first Amen. For the motet’s second part, the texture is almost continuously massive so that the evangelist’s words of praise become a sonorous melange with a few thinner oases before the explosion which is a sort of extended vocal fantasia on a concluding Amen! Tallis wrote for eight 5-part bodies; McAlley for ten 4-part groups – but detecting the difference in weight would require finer ears than mine. I can hear some insecure voices in patches of the first half of Omnes angeli but these are soon forgotten when you’re faced with the sumptuous power of the work’s later pages which give a remarkable aural realization of angelic jubilation.
Quite an achievement, getting all these works down on CD. McAlley himself sings tenor in half of the tracks; Kate McBride’s soprano is heard in nine; her bass husband, Tom Reid, and McAlley’s wife, alto Leonie Tonkin (who provides the recorder for The Lord bless you and keep you), participate in six. The composer/singer’s dedication to his task is admirable. But, in the end, you have to wonder whether this recreation of a long-gone style of composition is leading anywhere – or even whether it should. To my mind, this recording is something of a curio: pleasant to hear, tasteful and well-crafted in its elements even if some of the interpretations are rough around the edges. A tribute to the musical past by recreating it.