A BAROQUE CHRISTMAS
Move Records MCD 607
What’s in a name? Well, Ms Capulet, if you’re lucky, specificity. This new CD from one of Melbourne’s leading choral bodies embraces some odd repertoire reaches in its catch-all title, which includes two works by Josquin, a motet by Victoria,(admittedly, a special case for period encapsulation), and – to end enigmatically – a Basque carol: The angel Gabriel, in David Willcocks’ 1970 arrangement. Still, it could quite easily be argued that, except for the last track which is now synonymous with British choral practice, all the music on offer – Bach, Sweelinck, Praetorius, Giovanni Gabrieli, Scheidt as mainstream representatives – could have been heard in Christmas celebrations during the (roughly) two centuries covered blanket-like by the term Baroque, as it pertains to music history.
One of the significant virtues of the album is its presentation of familiar texts and melodies in settings that you don’t often hear. Christmas music lovers in this country are likely to experience In dulci jubilo through the R. L de Pearsall version, but Douglas Lawrence and his singers have wiped away much Victorian-era sentiment with their two readings: one by Samuel Scheidt, the other a mixture of Bach and Luther’s associate, Johann Walter. Likewise, the Resonet in laudibus that can be heard most often in enlightened churches is the setting by Lassus, so having the opportunity to enjoy Eccard’s work on this particular text is welcome. Most of us have been indoctrinated to accept the opening and closing of Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols as giving the customary Gregorian shape to Hodie Christus natus est; but Sweelinck’s treatment offers a different type of richness. And our knowledge of the Von Himmel hoch tune has been conditioned by Bach’s chorale preludes, fughetta, and canonic variations (further complicated by Stravinsky’s orchestration of these last), so the Gumpelzhaimer revamp also served to crack away at pre-conceptions.
Alongside these, Lawrence and Company offer two O magnum mysterium motets (Victoria and Giovanni Gabrieli), Josquin’s Ave Maria and the Gloria from his Missa Pange lingua, three Praetorius’ treatments (Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, Singt und klingt, and three verses of Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem where the other four were written by Bartholomaus Gesius), a Halleluja, freuet euch by Andreas Hammerschmidt, and four Bach works (the afore-mentioned In dulci jubilo verses, Lobet den Herrn, the O Jesulein suss soprano solo, and the bookend movements to the organ solo Pastorale). The CD’s content lasts a little under 57 minutes, the Singt und klingt coming in well under a minute, with Lobet den Herrn the longest track at 7’22”.
To open, Lawrence supervises a moving account of the Josquin motet, with some excellent hocket-type syncopations, viz. the tenors from bars 44 to 50 (at the words Caelestia, terrestria nova replet, if you’re uncomfortable with subdivisions applied in later editions), and the altos joining in on the same text. As well, the ensemble work in block chords at the move to triple time – Ave vera virginitas – proved exemplary, as did the splendid reserved reaction at the motet’s wrenching final plea. The ACC’s clarity of delivery is apparent in the composer’s Gloria, recorded in a Hanover church with impeccable acoustic properties for this genre of choral work. [The other 16 tracks were recorded in two Melbourne churches: St. Andrew’s Brighton and Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Middle Park.] Apart from an odd falter in bar 81 (the final miserere nobis), this track is exceptionally fine – the delivery faultless, phrasing carefully intermeshed, inner buoyancy unfailing – and each line impresses for its freshness of timbre.
Victoria’s O magnum mysterium has one of those spine-chilling moments that choristers lucky enough to perform this motet never forget, although it comes early – at bar 10 when the basses first enter. For some reason, the effect of the motet’s first 4-part chord is extraordinarily rich and powerful after those bare 5ths that have dominated the ambience till this point. The choir’s interpretation settles into a regularity of tempo that could have been eased when the iacentem in praesepio text arrives. But the O beata Virgo is finely balanced, as are the overlapping entries and tailing-off to the (what passes in Victoria for) celebratory Alleluia conclusion. With the Gabrieli 8-part setting, recorded in the Middle Park buiuding, the actual recording sound is excellent: crisp, faithful to all lines, controlling the various timbres so that individual voices are subsumed in the overall complex. Only a coarse note from the tenors around the bar 7 mark disrupts a performance that you’d be lucky to hear in Venice for its eloquence and exemplary melding of forces.
Resonet in laudibus in 5 parts gives its extra line (I think) to tenors who tend to be swamped by the formidable female contingent. This is pretty stolid singing, sort of understandable given the composer’s harmonic plan which shows no flights of fancy, but the effect might have shown more festive with a brisker tempo and more punch on linear fulcrum notes. In contrast, you can hear a fair instance of rhythmic bite in the Sweelinck Hodie, to the point where you can forgive the singers for short-changing the third syllable of that word each time it comes around. Another five-line work, this has a deft Gabrieli-like alternation of parts, mirroring each other on a smaller scale than the giant constructions for St. Mark’s. Here again, the Middle Park church is sympathetic to all the forces involved.
The singers have no problem with Gumpelzhaimer’s harmonization of Von Himmel hoch, singing three verses and sparing us the remaining twelve. . It’s nicely carried-off, blokey work without any of those slippery chromatics that will bedizen the tune a century later. All the versions I’ve come across of Scheidt’s In dulci jubilo have two trumpet parts; these look pretty incidental throughout but could have been useful to add sparkle to some sustained notes, especially the final syllable which seems to have an extra C coming in late. Like the Sweelinck, this performance stresses the brightness of the occasion, the score full of spacious textures across its 8 lines and an excellent pair of treble groups leading the changes in metre and tempering their top As with discretion.
As with Gumpelzhaimer, so with Praetorius’ lucid four-part and non-fussy treatment of Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, the ACC singing three verses of the five available. They’re inclined to cut the final note of each first line, but you can understand why: taking a breath after accounting for the full note-length runs the danger of turning back the clock to those days when we endured Bach’s Passion chorales with a pause or fermata every time you turned your head. Further, each concluding phrase is carefully articulated with a tension-reducing piano that rounds out the original tune’s shape. For the little Singt und klingt, Lawrence and his choir stick to the German text and ensure that we register each consonant across the piece’s short duration, with a broad final cadence.
The alternation between Gesius and Praetorius for Ein Kind geborn zu Betlehem offers your normal garden-variety four part setting and some bare-bones verses, e.g. in two parts. The whole is well knitted together by the singers even if you have to exercise your perceptions to find much difference between the two Frankfurt cobbers and contemporaries. The following account of Hammerschmidt’s joyous effusion is effectively accomplished. Elizabeth Anderson provides the most subtle of continuo supports to a trio comprising two tenors and a bass with a four-part choir breaking in on them with an infectious Freude, Freude chorus, the whole rounded out with a bounding title refrain. This is music that spills over itself with enthusiasm and fervour – a standout among the choir’s offerings.
As for the concluding Bach group, the level of musicianship here is exemplary, as you’d expect. Soprano Elspeth Bawden is accompanied on the St. Andrew’s organ by Anderson and gives us three verses of this touching melody – well, she repeats Verse 1 – and the voice is an excellent vehicle for it with a persuasive clarity and warmth – a far cry from the hooting boy treble who usually gets to desex the innocent page. Anderson plays the two Pastorale excerpts on the Middle Park church’s instrument, finding plenty of room for its flute stops (what would you expect?) and reminding us that the first evidence some of us had of her talents was in a Bach keyboard concerto competition many years ago, well before she was a soloist/chorister in Lawrence’s choirs. The interpretation is direct and brisk in the work’s last pages, although I missed the sustained alto C in bar 10 on the first play-through; it was there on the repeat.
The large-scale motets are an essential part of this choir’s repertoire, so the Lobet den Herrn performance had much to commend it, including a definition of contour that kept you aware of the score’s progress. The linear interplay proved to be exemplary with few signs of fatigue even if the four tenors refrained from blazing out their top notes. The sopranos and altos showed no fear and made a joy out of the final stretch of sequences across the concluding 20 bars. I wasn’t sure about the very soft soprano/tenor treatment of the last syllable of Ewigkeit in Bar 85, and later didn’t see the need for a pause at the same word in bar 98. But the ACC has the excellent talent of making works like these seem fresh and colour-filled, so different to the dusty bombast and mind-numbing heftiness that typified performances in former times.
Alternating the harmonizations of In dulci jubilo between Bach and Walter made for a mildly interesting study in textures, principally because the latter gave the melody to his tenors, while Bach reserved a good deal of his attention for the bass line – not very clear in this recording from the Middle Park building. But the delivery of this composite impressed during the Walter verses – the middle two. Further, the choir treated this with the sort of care that it needs to preserve its lullaby nature; well, that’s how I see it, even more so in these complementary four-part chorales.
Last of all, Willcocks’ arrangement with its changing 12/8, 6/8 and 9/8 time signatures enjoys an excellent outing, free from British cathedral hooting and incomprehensibility. Here, the singers contrived to make the piece sound amiable without over-cleverness, not emphasizing the cross-accents from the altos and basses in verse 2 and often observing the arranger’s carefully organized expression markings, as well as providing a splendid if unnecessary hiatus on the penultimate chord. It made an impressive conclusion to a fine disc, but I’m damned if I know what this track was doing there.