Craft with clarity


Sydney Chamber Choir and Camerata Antica

Verbrugghen Hall, Conservatorium of Music, Sydney

Saturday March 25, 2023

Sam Allchurch

This concert, broadcast by the Australian Digital Concert Hall, was encased by Giovanni Gabrieli. At the beginning, the Choir and Camerata performed the Venetian composer’s Jubilate Deo for 10 voices/parts; in the middle, the four-member Camerata played the little Canzon seconda; to finish, we heard the Magnificat a 14 for three choirs, with some brass support, balancing another block-chord gem heard previously: Schutz’s Deutsches Magnificat for a simple double choir.

In between times, Sam Allchurch took his forces through two Australian works written for the SCC – Claire Maclean‘s Christ the King of 1984, and Brooke Shelley‘s Heavenly Father composed last year – as well as Tavener’s A Hymn to the Mother of God from 1985, the first in his pair of such musical devotions to the Virgin. All are written for multiple voices. Christ the King opts for a normal SATB format but one that splits into several parts so that the individual staves become layers of sound fabric, expanding and contracting to sometimes brilliant effect. Shelley’s construct uses eight vocal lines but not the expected division into two choirs; rather – like Maclean’s work – interweaving textures and offering timbral differentiations, most obviously employing vocal gender as a textual discriminant. The British composer wrote for a double choir, each containing six lines equally divided between male and female singers.

The last time I heard Allchurch conducting was also on an ADCH telecast, albeit one that was already a year old: Messiah from Christ Church St. Laurence in Haymarket. That was a run-of-the-mill reading with not much to distinguish it from many another. This chamber choir is a different body, although there might be some crossover between the two, as there was with Douglas Lawrence’s Ormond College group and the Scots Church Choir (and, I suspect, the Australian Chamber Choir). A good, early indication of quality came with the Jubilate Deo, in particular the piercing high As from the sopranos during each of the refrain repetitions. Possibly a hesitation at the bars’ 31-2 qui timet raised a frisson of doubt but this detail disappeared in the luscious fabric that obtained in the tutti-voice parts.

I have to admit to being impressed highly by the clarity from tenor and bass lines, even when reinforced by the occasional sackbut. The Camerata quartet gave a kind of outline to the score’s purely instrumental first 15 bars, Matthew Manchester‘s cornetto sounded quavering at bar 10 but the group gave quiet support to the choral forces, although I found it hard to pick out exactly which of the lines they were reinforcing – apart from the in laetitia bursts from bar 142 onwards when all I could discern of the top line was Manchester in full flight senza sopranos.

Organist Thomas Wilson supported the brass quartet in their essay at the Canzon seconda about which there’s not much to report except that the group got through its 49 bars competently enough; not totally unscathed, mind you and lacking any brio to inform what came across as something of a plod.

Allchurch split his forces into three discrete groups for the Magnificat finale – one in front of him on stage, two on either side of the organ gallery. Not that it made much difference to those of us who were listening online – and possibly not very effective for those on hand in the Verbrugghen space. Some of us have visited St. Mark’s Basilica which boasts the galleries from which Gabrieli’s choirs and instrumental groups operated to provide that much-vaunted ultra-quadrophonic assault on those standing/sitting on the wavy floor below. Fewer, I believe, would have enjoyed an actual Gabrieli concert in this venerable church but, judging by domestic attempts to replicate the Venetian experience (thanks, John O’Donnell), the effect can be remarkable with sheets of sonorous fabric pouring into your ears from different quarters.

By this stage of the evening, the multi-choral techniques had been well exercised. Not that this last work failed to make its grand effect but the chordal juxtapositions and linear imitations proved less striking than might have been the case with less peripheral matter. At places, I again thought that Manchester was taking the top line by himself; but the mesh is so thickly packed at many points that the voices might have been present.

I don’t have much sympathy with Tavener’s works; still, I’m also not sympathetic to any of the Baltic school of religion-inspired writers, either. All that hushed stasis fails to link into my concept of theological discourse, as it verges on the simple-minded or the exploration of a single idea stretched way beyond its initial potential. A Hymn to the Mother of God sets verses from the St. Basil Liturgy, full of striking hyperbole and metaphor that enjoys a simply organized setting – a canon in which the solitary points of interest come when harmonic clashes arise between the inexorable paths of the two choirs. You had to admire the singers’ steadfastness of pitch throughout these purging dissonances, although it seems to me that, once you’re settled into Tavener’s playbook, you simply aren’t that hard pressed to follow his none-too-difficult path.

Maclean’s text emanates from two poems by James Keir Baxter, a New Zealand writer. These particular lines are loaded with symbolism from the natural world and the speaker’s psyche, a series of tragedy-tinged prayers and observations on the poet’s relationship to God – not the happiest, it seems, and reminiscent of St. Peter’s view of the flesh. The composer sets the opening lines to a monophonic chant for female voices, transforming into a canon before the texture spreads for the first interjectory Alleluia. You get the impression that each syllable gets a note but that isn’t exactly true; yet the result is of a quiet vocal martellato.

The composer’s melodic and harmonic spread is not large but the whole piece holds your attention through its turns from simplicity to deftly placed melismata; suddenly, at the words Father, you know that it is so, the work’s movement mutates into the note-per-syllable mode in a reflection of Anglican chant, but the separate stanzas merge into more Alleluias which serve as a kind of transformation, from the core pleading and bleak self-awareness to the transcendental which eventually obliterates everything else in the score’s unsettling, incomplete conclusion. Honestly, I’m much more responsive to this grappling with faith, struggling to place yourself in a metaphysical context, than in the extended panels of placidity found in Tavener where you have to be content with admiration of a thought-shuttering iconostasis.

In some contrast, Shelley’s composition struck me as more four-square. Its opening and closing German strophes suggest a good old-fashioned Lutheran chorale, while the central English octet is processed quite slowly. I think that the work’s impact could have been diminished by its positioning after the Martin Mass, particularly as the new work reflected much of the Swiss master’s close-knit complexes.

Earlier in the program, Allchurch took his forces through the Schutz Magnificat setting with brass and organ accompaniment. All forces worked with fine verve through this score, even if I thought that the second choir’s tenors and basses had the edge over their opposite numbers; for example, the contrast at bars 71-73 on Die Hungeringen. Still, the divided sopranos were equally strong and definite in their articulation and the exchanges of Abraham beginning at bar 97 sounded seamless, capped by the choirs’ handling of the repeated zu Ewigkeit acclamations across the score’s restrained final bars. An impressive demonstration.

Time was when the Martin Mass was seen by many choirs as a high challenge. Its terrors have, to a large extent, vapourised over the decades, and you have a good chance of hearing the work from some organization in this country once a year. The SCC handled its many tests with aplomb, even if the opening Kyrie took a while to settle into a true concordance at the bar 37 Avec mouvement C Major chords. The ensemble displayed excellent pitch control in the built-up chords starting the Gloria, followed by a powerfully moving account of Agnus Dei, Filius Patris through to this segment’s conclusion at bar 84. The following Quoniam for basses at the octave showed appropriate firmness without stridency, and the final two-bar Amen proved to be very Retenu indeed.

The composer’s Credo moves rapidly through the text and I could find only one questionable bar up to the Et incarnatus, somewhere in the Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine passage. You have to wonder, at several stages in this mass, just how ‘old’ it sounds; e.g., the et sepultus est, which strikes me as ersatz Renaissance. But the choir followed Martin’s clear path with dedication, moving into bouncy suppleness at the Et in Spiritum Sanctum verses before a jubilant conclusion to this happy declaration of faith. A respectful, reverent initial move from the male forces began the Sanctus, moving to a controlled handling of the 5/8 rhythm in the Hosanna.

Perhaps the most moving section of this work arrives with the Benedictus and its move from muttered open 5th chords in the lower vocal layers to melodic cells in thirds echoing in both sets of sopranos. This interplay makes for a splendidly dramatic point where ritual intersects with rhapsody; on paper, it presents as difficult to position in rhythm and pitch, but the accession to a final Hosanna proved to be most exhilarating in this reading. I heard no signs of stress during the Agnus Dei, apart from an unhappy conclusion to bar 39 from the first choir sopranos. Otherwise, this movement rounded off a fruitful and vivid interpretation of a ‘difficult’ music, although its trials are just about commensurate with Webern’s Op. 2 written 14 years earlier, and a doddle compared to the same composer’s two cantatas – but then, what isn’t?

This Sydney ensemble has been functioning for almost 50 years and its performance standard is on a level with some of the better Melbourne choirs I’ve come across (certainly superior to anything I’ve heard in Brisbane) if not quite up to the mark of the Ensemble Gombert. Its program worked very cleverly to a specific brief – music for more than one choir – with each performance well-rehearsed and – insofar as any such thing was offered – insightful. The organization’s presentations later in the year are filled with works both intriguing and bland (Jacques Brel? Arvo Part??), but what you cannot doubt is the singers’ enthusiasm in their work – a sine qua non of public performance.