THE OCTAVE OF CHRISTMAS
Melbourne Digital Concert Hall
Thursday December 9, 2021
It’s hard to remember much about last year’s Christmas in musical terms. Did anything happen? Certainly nothing much in Brisbane, where such activity was more likely to come about than anywhere else in the country. At all events, this year we came upon an unexpected pleasure, one I found at the last minute and featuring a spartan ensemble – our own version of VOCES8 – that worked through a near-hour’s worth of choral music. We began with Perotin’s famous organum exercise, Viderunt omnes (well, some of it) and ended in Martin and Blane’s sentimental Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas of 1943. For obvious reasons, the whole enterprise took on characteristics from all over the place. You had music that only choirs like the Ensemble Gombert would mount; soon after came pieces that could have graced an Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Noel! Noel! program; alongside these, you fell into Australian Boys Choir mode; creeping under the cultural portcullis came shades of the anything-goes approach typical of every Myer Bowl Carols by Candelight.
As well as negotiating hairpin bends of repertoire, I also relished coming across singers whose work I’d enjoyed many times in bygone years, like bass Jerzy Kozlowski who enriched my experiences through his appearances with the Gomberts and Nick Tsiavos’ Jouissance ensemble, not to mention turning up in unexpected places like playing the Sacristan in an Opera Australia Tosca. Also making a welcome re-appearance was tenor Timothy Reynolds whose clean timbre is still clearly piercing through multi-line complexes. In fact, I have experienced most of the Octet’s male voices – bass Oliver Mann in Bach, Christopher Roache’s tenor/countertenor in Ballarat, Southgate, and the Mornington Peninsula. The one male voice I didn’t know was that of tenor Christopher Watson.
Of the women, I have seen soprano Katherine Norman in a variety of ensembles but not her colleague Elspeth Bawden. Alto Helena Ekins’ profile indicates that I must have heard her on several occasions; alas, the memory is not what it was. However, as a unit, the singers managed quite well, if the balance proved uneven in some of the earlier pieces attempted, and a few wavering pitches showed that the operating zone wasn’t completely comfortable for everyone – neither in ensemble nor in physical situation.
To put it bluntly, much of this program would have come off more successfully in a church with a bit of resonance. The Athenaeum 2 space is an odd area where I’ve seen little beyond the premiere of Gordon Kerry’s opera Medea 30 years ago, and another event I recall only for its inclusion of Schoenberg’s arrangement of Funiculi, Funicula. For my taste, the Octet sounded too close – or too closed in – which meant that any errors were immediately obvious, especially production imbalances and the occasional early entry. Watson didn’t push himself forward as the body’s fulcrum but remained a model of discretion, especially once his various ships had been launched. Moving into first gear, that initial Perotin work impressed for its still-breathtaking vitality, thanks to the bright top three lines. Still, it finished at bar 37 in my edition, the title words having been treated but not the rest of the Gradual. Moving along a few temporal spaces, the male voices initiated a fair attempt at the medieval English carol Sing we to this merry company, working through three of the five verses I’ve come across and showing a keen responsiveness to its harmonic crises.
I believe that the Praetorius version of In dulci jubilo involves 8 parts. As the piece moved on, Elspeth Bawden was – to put it nicely – challenged by the complexity of her support; a shame as this carol stands above nearly all others in any language for its splendid shape of line and eloquent verbal matter. Only a slightly enthusiastic entry from Kozlowski in the last line ruffled the group’s unanimity. Another Praetorius motet, Joseph, lieber, moved smoothly along its way with only a falter in the pulse at a couple of measures near bar 29 to distract us, compensated by a finely shaped last five bars.
Dering’s Quem vidistis got off to an uncertain opening but impressed for the briskness of pace adopted for its duration. A pair of arrangements by John O’Donnell followed in quick succession: Noel nouvelet involving a lot of melodic repetition but featuring an unattractive mini-canon for male voices set against an excellent conclusion to very four-square material; and Il est ne, le divin Enfant, enriched by a plethora of Noe interjections, musette imitations, modulations to quicken the pulse, and a fine fade-out with only a querulous soprano note disturbing the final chord.
The Octet continued a trek through the realm of Australian Arrangement Land, and for a while it looked as though we were in for the long haul. Lachlan McDonald paid his respects to Gabriel’s Message with plenty of 2nds to add briskness to this usually mild carol. It was during this piece that Christopher Roache’s versatility became apparent – a facet or two that should have struck me much earlier in the night. The male voices provided appropriate humming while both sopranos jaunted through the Virgin’s response, ‘To me be as it pleaseth’. McDonald also took the opportunity to bathe us in Gloria treatments, later allowing Mann and Kozlowski to take on the original melody while a ferment erupted above them which didn’t aid the textual clarity or the light narrative. As with O’Donnell’s treatments, the harmonic sliding here proved rich and sometimes unexpected.
Regarding the almost unavoidable Away in a manger, Michael Leighton Jones’s version employs a soprano solo in the outer verses with a supporting syncopated susurrus of ‘lullaby’. All forces participated in a harmonized middle stanza before the final quatrain saw a refreshing rhythmic flexibility applied in the top line. Another inevitability, Silent night, gained some tension from David Brinsmead’s version which proved satisfyingly rich for the first two stanzas, including a forceful soprano descant at the opening to Verse 2, a glee club-style modulation to enter the final sextet, and a consoling recapitulation of ‘Sleep in heavenly peace’ at the carol’s final bars.
Michael Leunig has written several poems to do with Christmas, but nothing as moving as his I see a twinkle in your eye. Calvin Bowman’s setting alternates between monolinear and chorale, although it moves into greater complexity for a time before its emotionally warm conclusion on ‘The manger where the real things are’, which was definitely one of those points in this program which cried out for an ecclesiastical echo. As did Britten’s A Hymn to the Virgin which suffered from a lack of resonance and the equality of numbers in both choirs, as well as the first choir’s soprano trying to carry off the climactic Of all thou bear’st the prize against her enthusiastic colleagues. By contrast, Warlock’s Benedicamus Domino sounded earth-bound and beery, handled with fitting emphasis and dynamic girth.
Back to more arrangements with the Austrian escapee, Still, still, still, featuring a spotlight on Reynolds riding a genial support. British choral expert Alexander L’Estrange left nowhere for his sopranos to hide when the text turned English, but interest returned with the melody’s displacement between tenor, bass, and female voices, not to mention a little burst of ‘Schlaf in Himmlischer Ruh!’ to round off the carol. L’Estrange’s handling of In the bleak midwinter gave prominence to Christopher Watson who had the first and last words, Mann making a worthy if less substantial contribution in between. A canon between sopranos and the male voices made a mish-mash of Verse 3’s opening while Roache was granted the briefest of solos. But then, L’Estrange’s final verse moved the focus across the whole ensemble in a rather slick/smooth version that tended to make thick plum sauce of Christina Rossetti’s poised lines.
At last, we came to Jingle Bells in an arrangement by British musician Ben Parry that revived the groovy Swingle Singers’ sound, providing air space to Kozlowski’s deep and perky timbre, Roache’s tenor giving him a run for his money. As you’d expect, the whole crowd got right in there with a-ring-a-ding-ding as the sleigh-bells got a working over. Parry moved us into 6/8 for a bar or two in the sort of exercise that would go down a treat at Marquette University. Ditto Have Yourself etc. in a version by another British musician-of-all-trades, Peter Gritton. Here were more ‘close’ harmonies and laid-back sentimentality with a memorable glissando. Watson introduced an encore – yet another L’Estrange product, this time I’ll be home for Christmas. A world premiere, no less, it held plenty of exposed work for Watson’s own light timbre. Just the thing to finish off a final trio of originally-USA products and standards from the formidable republic and testifying to that nation’s terrifyingly banal debasement of a great Christian festival.
Still, at the end of this recital, we had the shades of Perotin and Praetorius still hovering to show us what Christmas can be, or better, what it can mean to musicians of stature, what it meant – and could mean – to be committed to the mystery of God made Man and finding something to be celebrated in that, rather than demeaning your intelligence to the level of a Dudley Dursley count-the-presents regime or seeking a Nativity vision at the bottom of a glass through which a red-nosed reindeer brings the promise of seasonal surfeit and stupidity. This recital made for a double-edged gift from the Octet, then – but thanks anyway; in this time of distress and disappointment, we’ll take whatever small-scale treasures we can find.