No sweat

Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Hamer Hall

Saturday July 27

King's

                                                   Chapel, King’s College, Cambridge

Here they are again, for an eighth Musica Viva tour of Australia; nice to hear the group in excellent vocal shape and an improvement on their last appearance here.  A pretty full house appeared to be satisfied with the experience last Saturday evening, even if what was on offer didn’t deviate much outside the bounds of Establishment repertoire and an almost palpable tastefulness.   Singing to their strengths, the Cambridge choristers excelled in certain parts of the one program they were presenting to Melbourne and even the so-so works  came across as thoroughly prepared and committed, although at some stages you wondered what all the fuss was about.

Conductor Daniel Hyde, replacing an indisposed Sir Stephen Cleobury who was unable to tour, gave a benign introduction to the choir’s most adventurous offerings: Ross Edwards’ new Singing the Love, Judith Weir’s O Mercy Divine and Pace by Errollyn Wallen.   The impression gained from Hyde’s address was of something daring, music that moved the singers from their usual staid fare into new arenas of emotional and technical adventure.

Not exactly.  Edwards had inserted a touch of nationalist colour with an accompaniment of some Aboriginal-type sticks, but the familiar clicks punctuated an orthodox choral texture with only a rapid downward-falling motif from the sopranos to provide an unexpected frisson of novelty.   His work is in essence a setting of Psalm 100, the one about making ‘a joyful noise unto the Lord’; these words recur so that you inevitably categorise the format as a small-scale rondo, the exuberant recurrent chorus book-ending quieter sections.  Every so often, you got a burst of Maninyas joyfulness but much of the work sat more than comfortably alongside the sober placidity of the program.

Weir’s setting of a Charles Wesley hymn also burst into no new territory.  It seemed at the start to be a lullaby in 6/8 with a canon between the lower voices and the sopranos before moving into a more concerted central body of development.  Adorning its placid choral writing, Umberto Clerici’s cello inserted a busy counter-activity – one of the night’s few points where the Sydney Symphony Orchestra principal wasn’t just reinforcing the bass line.  The piece was written for last year’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, into which context it would have slotted seamlessly.

Wallen’s piece used its title as text; by the way, it’s the Italian word for ‘peace’, not a synonym for ‘step’.  Throughout its (brief) length, the singers’ lines move in a sort of sliding impressionism from concords to quiet dissonances, the textures floating by pleasantly enough towards a single-note resolution.   Yet again, the score presented these musicians with no striking challenges, but what could you expect from a piece whose primary aim is to encourage reflection?   To that end, I think Pace might succeed to better effect in a church environment blessed with a significant echo; in this context, the experience offered little beyond the chance to admire the choir’s security of pitch.

Following this modernist bracket, the choir ended their set program with a reassuring reversion to type, just in case Wallen’s impressionist drifting had disoriented your sense of harmonic rectitude.  Vaughan Williams’ Bunyan setting, Valiant-for-Truth is a fine statement of stalwart faith ending in a blaze of fanfares as ‘all the trumpets sounded for him’  –  a welcome burst of aggressive, militant Christianity from the temperamentally mild Cambridge choir.

Saturday opened with a now-you-hear-it-now you-don’t Monteverdi motet, Cantate Domino: a warm-up number served with the reassurance of a chamber organ support – God knows why.   The scheduled Bach, Lobet den Herrn, disappeared somewhere along the track to be replaced by Komm, Jesu, komm; fine by me – I’ll take a double choir gem against a 4-part motet any day and this one concludes with that mellifluous aria/chorale, Drauf schliess’ ich mich.   Clerici and an unknown organist provided the bass-line/continuo that I can’t find in my edition but which is de rigueur in performances these days.   The sound complex sounded rather sweet and euphonious for what is possibly a piece written for a funeral but Hyde and his forces approached it with a clear eye for its close echo effects and innate reserve.

The boys left the stage so that the men could sing Cavalli’s Salve Regina for altos, two sets of tenors, basses and, in this instance, organ with a certain level of independence although it’s hard to know if that was inserted by the anonymous performer.  The composer sustains a reverential tone before the exciting outbreak of Ad te clamavi but the movement returns to placid, with a moving repetition of Ostende from the altos as the piece moves into its final phase.   At its best, this exercise demonstrated the clarity of the Cambridge tenors and the gentlemanly restraint of the body’s basses who maintained a ruminative rumble for much of the night.

The boys returned for one of their party pieces: Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, with harpist Alice Giles a scintillating support.   During this score, I became aware of an exceptional and individual voice on the right-hand side of the singers, a ripe and mature soprano with a vivid vibrato.   Distracting?   To some extent but also an enrichment to the choral output.   I think this singer had one of the earlier solos – That yonge child? – but the ensemble handled each movement with impressive professionalism, even the rapid-fire canons of This little babe which for once showed no signs of losing pace or unanimity of attack.

As you’d expect, the singers showed an unflashy authority throughout, impressing with  elegant phrasing on the Transeamus conclusion to There is no rose, an irreproachable reading blessed with a fine conclusion from the two soloists handling the Spring Carol, and a welcome animation throughout Adam lay i–bounden.  The performance was punctuated with applause from listeners unfamiliar with the process of hearing a work as a unity rather than as a series of sound-bites – the same reaction that you get at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Myer Bowl concerts in February where each individual symphony movement is hailed with enthusiasm regardless of length or quality of performance.

Straight after interval, the choir sang three Tudor works, meat and drink to Anglican choirs over the past century and always welcome from practitioners like these; the sort of music-making many of us could have listened to all night.   Byrd’s Laudibus in sanctis emphasized yet again the excellent unforced security from the body’s tenors while the basses continued to exercise restraint, even at pivotal moments like their Laude Dei entrances.   But the energy of the two soprano parts was a source of high pleasure.  Loquebantur variis linguis by Tallis was supported by the chamber organ, although I think its role was confined to doubling the bass line.  This also showed the singers in a flattering light, particularly in the sprightly vigour of their Alleluia repetitions.

Concluding this segment was Hosanna to the Son of David by Gibbons that I first heard over 40 years ago at an Ely Cathedral Evensong; memorable because, on the admission of one of the choristers,  the choir barely scraped through this taxing masterpiece.   No worries here as Hyde directed a lightly bounding version rich in rhythmic displacements and some of the most deliciously understated false relations I’ve ever heard.   Most choirs turn this motet into a loud-voiced battleground where non-existent bar-lines take unwelcome precedence.   In contrast, the Cambridge musicians handled it with linear probity, the polyphonic web rising and receding with masterly skill.

Giles enjoyed a solo with Salzedo’s Variations sur un theme dans le style ancien, a virtuoso late-Romantic turn that stays close to its original material with some impressive treble detail work.   In this players’ hands, the piece impressed for its subtle virtuosity.   Still, it  stuck out from its surroundings  – Gibbons and Edwards – with uncomfortable distinctiveness . . . which didn’t do anything to subdue the enthusiasm with which it was greeted.

A sombre seasonal prelude

ARVO PART: PASSIO

Australian Boys Choir and The Vocal Consort

Sacred Heart Church, Carlton

Sunday March 24

Dinopoulos

                                                                 Nicholas Dinopoulos

Under new conductor/artistic director Dinopoulos, the ABC singers are striking out into unexpected territory, viz. this choral chef-d’oeuvre by Estonia’s most important living composer.  Part has featured on many programs in the last decade, mainly choral or orchestral, and his compositional language –  in particular the much-extolled tintinnabuli technique – has contributed to making his voice as identifiable and distinctive as that of Peter Sculthorpe.

In a program note for this concert, Dinopoulos proposes that Part is the most performed serious composer of our time.  This could be borne out by some prominent concerts held already this year.  To open 2019, the Australian Chamber Orchestra mounted a Part-Bach celebration in collaboration with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, winding up with the 1990/1997 Berliner Messe.   And the first event in the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival on January 11 was a performance of this work, Part’s St. John Passion, from Gary Ekkel and his Schola Cantorum.

Not attracting their usual house-full numbers, the ABC and Vocal Consort gave a steady, no-nonsense account of this remarkable score.  Part gives most of his operation over to a four-voice group representing the Evangelist, continually changing the combination from solos through to quartet.   In this version, Dinopoulos placed his chief principals – Steven Hodgson (Christ) and Spencer Chapman (Pilate)  –   in the Sacred Heart choir-loft with Rhys Boak at the William Anderson organ.   The small requisite instrumental ensemble – violin (Elizabeth Anderson), cello (Anna Pokorny), oboe (Jasper Ly), bassoon (Chris Martin) – contributed a sustained commentary with only a few patches of questionable pitching.

But the afternoon’s outstanding effort came from the Evangelists: soprano Katharine Norman, mezzo Kristy Biber, tenor Robin Parkin, baritone Lucien Fischer.  Most of these are members of The Consort of Melbourne and predictably competent at handling Part’s repetitive, circular vocal writing.

Much of the difficulty in handling this Passion’s vocal work seems to be in maintaining a sustained regularity of output.   Each line has a limited compass, little room for dynamic innovation, a circumscribed rhythmic impetus; so much so that a greater part of the complex’s interest emerges from the changing combinations of voices and the spartan character of their counterpoint.   Not even the central character is given emotional latitude, although his exchanges with Pilate came across in this performance with unexpected power, no doubt due to Part’s unwillingness to get in the way of his text.

As a forward step in the ABC’s development, this event made for a memorable occasion, a hurdle that the young (and youngish) members of both junior and senior ensembles negotiated with unexpected aplomb.   You may say that the terrors of articulation are mitigated by a close instrumental support, but vocalists still have to find their own way without lagging or waiting for reinforcement.   It helped that Dinopoulos’ mode of direction came from an emphatic and clear school; just the sort of conducting that you’d expect from a singer-musician who has learned his craft from observing both the worthwhile and the useless gestures of senior figures during his career to date.

I’m thankful to the ABC performers and their guests for working through this hour-long score with respectful probity, showing a clear-headedness of interpretation that persisted in following the composer’s bare-bones expression.   If you’re accustomed to associate musical settings of the Passion with the two canonical masterpieces by Bach, Part’s score hits you between the eyes as unsettling, intensely repetitious and a grim progress through the story without digressions or melismata.   Those moments from St. John’s Gospel that have previously summoned up dramatic climaxes, like the turba‘s exchanges with Pilate, here take on a remote ambience; the remorseless journey towards Christ’s death impresses for its uninterrupted steadiness, reinforced by the composer’s vocal and lyrical economy.

Yet, while applauding the performance’s conviction and reverence, the catharsis that some of us experience during Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John Passions is alien to Part’s intention.  This contemporary construct, after you settle into accepting its stilted ambience, is eminently accessible, without any of Bach’s rhetoric or expansiveness.  Only in the final sentence, where the composer moves away from the Johannine text, does the work’s atmosphere abruptly explode into a rich flourish of jubilant colour.  The main body of the score comprises sinuous interweaving lines from both principals and choir, the whole body operating in a state of subsumed tension that fluctuates like gentle waves – no breakers in sight.

It’s not repulsive, this music; indeed, it can be attractive, but not so much to those who know and find it hard to ignore their history.   Final accurate assessment of products from the latter-day school of musical mystics like Part, Tavener, Gorecki, Kancheli and Vasks must be left to a later generation but I can’t summon up much enthusiasm for them, chiefly because I distrust an inbuilt naivete.   If anything strikes me, it is that these proponents of minimalism in religious music are content to work at a too-simple level – perhaps to communicate directly, possibly to express their verities untrammeled by scholarship, hopefully composing with an innocence of intention.   But they appear to be reducing music to a deliberately unsophisticated base, one that discards the achievements of yesteryear.  To hear Part’s Passio after an Isaac mass is comparable to moving from Kant’s Critique of Judgment to Lobsang Rampa’s The Third Eye; somewhere along the line, intellectual and spiritual advances have gone into reverse.

Naturally, musicians have to deal with Part and his peers; for want of known competition, these writers can claim eminence on the current musical scene.  The Australian Boys Choir and Vocal Consort have negotiated their first Part encounter with distinction.  Now, Dinopoulos & Co. can push their charges’ talents even further, into more difficult music.  Nobody expects the Webern Cantatas, Schoenberg’s Psalms, or the more rugged Bartok Folksongs.  But a little investigation will uncover a wealth of choral music that moves the level of difficulty needle somewhat higher than modern-day British pap or American filler.

 

 

 

What price the Holy Spirit?

ARVO PART & J.S.BACH

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Sunday February 10

Estonian

                                               Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Starting out 2019 as it probably means to continue, the ACO under Richard Tognetti mounted a first program for its subscription series that stretched across the centuries, its main structural premise to put side by side works from two composers of religious music.  If you really stretch, you can find links between Bach and Part; when I say ‘you’, I mean it because I can’t see any grounds for comparison – not in terms of the mechanics of composition nor in the self-imposed aesthetic of both men.

Nevertheless, this event – playing to a pretty full Hamer Hall  –  succeeded conclusively on technical grounds, if none other.   The guest choir proved to be an exceptionally well-balanced ensemble, apart from a sporadically dominant soprano in Choir 1, with a fine tenor sextet and an appreciable difference in sound colour between the two groups during the Bach works.   It was impossible to take notes during the performance as the hall was plunged into darkness as soon as the music started; which struck me as odd, unnecessarily theatrical when the places for which most of these compositions were composed are usually blazing with light.

Having a firm association with their famous compatriot, the Estonian singers brought out the best in the two Part vocal scores: Da pacem, Domine,  and the Berliner Messe of 1990.  Like many of the composer’s works, the Da pacem shows few signs of harmonic adventure with several finely ground dissonances slightly disturbing the usual placid polyphonic carapace, mainly through supple triadic juxtapositions.  As a requiem for the Madrid train bombing victims of 2004, the short motet-like work is informed by familiar Part tropes, including a slow-moving-to-static pulse, isolated notes for the sopranos, and an atmosphere of ritualised mourning.  The choir sang it from in front of the ACO, before moving to their expected positions behind the instruments.

On this occasion, the version used was Part’s arrangement for voices and strings, which set the timbre field for the rest of the afternoon.   When the next work burst upon us, Bach’s Komm, Jesu, komm, the ACO strings doubled the vocal lines and did so for Singet dem Herrn, the four-part Lobet den Herrn, Der Geist hilft and also performed the Berlin Mass in Part’s post-premiere arrangement for voices and strings.

As for discrete works from the two forces, Tognetti took the ACO through Part’s Summa, later recycled as the Credo for his Mass and a transparent sample of the composer’s synchronising of an arpeggio/triad with a mode: stately, not leading anywhere and reminiscent of a conversation where all the sentences stay unfinished.   Following interval, the strings played the Toccata from Part’s Collage on B-A-C-H, the only one of the three movements that is scored for strings alone.   Not so much a toccata as a moto perpetuo satire on continuo homophony, this proved to be the program’s oddity for its pulsating rhythmic drive, as well as for having no connection with the spiritual referents of the other works performed.

Galina Grigorjeva’s In Paradisum gave the EPCC a solo spot and, although the piece would have gained from a space with an abundant echo, it slotted into these proceedings without much effort.  Almost inevitably, this slow-moving setting of the Requiem Mass’s final antiphon showed a predilection for Part’s commitment to triads and the common major chord, best exemplified in the three thrilling bursts of acclaim at the words Chorus Angelorum te suscipiant, even if moments like this show both composers’ debt to Rachmaninov.   But Grigorjeva’s writing is more pungent, especially in the use of 2nd intervals; while her employment of chords-plus-fluent melodic lines in combination suggests the senior writer, her setting style has more magniloquence to it.

I suppose the inclusion of Sculthorpe’s Djilele was meant to demonstrate Aboriginal spirituality through a semi-sophisticated Western compositional filter.  But it rather undercut the surrounding pieces because the fragment gives little more than atmosphere, suggesting the outback with as much subtlety as Chauvel’s film Jedda.  Timo-Veikko Valve made a mountain out of the opening cello solo but I missed the textural contributions of six winds and percussion appearing in the original arrangement that Sculthorpe organised for the ACO back in 1996.

You couldn’t take exception to the Mass as a liturgical construct.   Part kept his language sombre and open to the performers’ own choice of inflections with an inbuilt consistency  in language that complemented a necessary variety in both weight and vocal/instrumental combinations.   Yes, there are longueurs, like the mode employed for both Gloria and Credo which gives a chord or a two-voice interval to each syllable and simply forges ahead on a steady path, regardless of the textual content.   Compensating for this are some surprises with two fluid Alleluia settings that site the work as usable for Pentecost and a setting of that feast’s Sequence, Veni Sancte Spiritus, which suggests a slow medieval dance or conductus, albeit one where the metre changes from 3 to 4 beats in the bar with welcome regularity.

While the choral body came across very confidently in this four-part composition, Tognetti’s strings were a much less assertive presence; to such an extent that you might have thought that Part had confined his orchestra to supportive duties only, until you see in the score that many passages have welcome individual touches, including harmonics that in this performance failed to carry with anything like sufficient power.   The lack of weight, especially in the upper string ranks, meant that Part’s carefully disposed chords became attenuated, not the trenchant commentary intended.

At its core, this near-30-year-old Mass, even if a revenant from pre-Vatican II times, is perfectly serviceable as an ecumenical liturgical construct and serves as well as anything else in the catalogue to allow a fair summation of Part’s voice which can be direct enough for the intended purpose and isn’t consistently aiming for transcendence.   In some ways, the Estonian is an old-fashioned writer, utilising simple structures and patterns , suggesting a spiritual remoteness and the silence of meditation rather than the resonant jubilation of proximity to the divine.

With a new year comes a new format in the ACO’s program booklets; new to me, at least.  A short description of each work is provided but the bulk of the material comprises commentary and interview articles.   Amiel Courtin-Wilson , artist and film-maker, gives an appreciation of Part’s role in his mental life: an appealing encomium which stops just short of gushing.   Arab-Australian poet Omar Sakr offers a substantial piece that includes Tognetti’s views on Part and Bach, with the emphasis on the latter.  Finally, ACO librarian Bernard Rofe suggests some ways to approach the program and, in a small space, attempts to find common ground between the pieces being presented.

Much of the central article by Sakr makes invigorating reading, although you suspect that Tognetti is reaching to activate a muted shock button in his evaluation of Bach’s interpretation of the Lutheran zeitgeist.   He is quite right to point to a historical connection between the two composers featured in his program’s title but, given the scores themselves, surely this resolves into both men’s dedication to sacred music.  Even to those among us who are charitably disposed to fluffing up music-history pillows, Part and Bach operate in completely discrete arenas of thought, let alone action; that their metaphysical aspirations are close is probably worth debating but their lives, their musical practice, their creative personalities are as far apart as Josquin and Berio.

Obviously, the new booklet format must be welcomed for putting forward a welter of thoughts that continue to bemuse  both before and after the concerts themselves.  Perhaps this afternoon was – as I think – a mish-mash and not that convincing as a practical compendium of two musics; or possibly the applause that greeted both halves of this concert sees the enterprise differently, showing a more generous, accepting attitude from ACO followers.  What must be said – and I can’t say the same as frequently as I’d like  –  these two hours spent with the ACO and EPCC were unexpectedly fruitful and challenging.

 

 

 

So much talent and promise

THOMAS TALLIS’ ENGLAND

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday February 24 and Sunday February 25

                                                                           Max Riebl

For some of the time, this concert did give us an idea of the musical world during the time of Thomas Tallis; it contained some works by Tallis himself – three of them – and one motet by his much younger friend and business associate, William Byrd.  But then the chronology went off the anticipated schedule.  Paul Dyer and his orchestra-plus-choir sang and played a bracket of madrigals and motets by Orlando Gibbons; nothing wrong with that and some of it proved pleasurable – but this isn’t much to do with Tallis.

Things hardly improved with the interpolation of a few scraps by Purcell, born over 75 years after the death of Tallis.  A similar bracket followed by Handel,  born a full century after Tallis had shuffled off his mortal coil.  A strange byway came with a piece from Matthew Locke, giving a sort of temporal link between Byrd and Purcell but written in a language some streets removed from the program’s nominated focus.  Oddest of all, the concert’s conclusion came in Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis which is a fine sample of the composer’s art but belongs pretty firmly to the Edwardian era of pre-World War I rustic polyphonic placidity and, despite its use of a Tallis tune, is in no way representative of the Tudor master’s England.

In other words, the content presented on this night was a hodgepodge, compiled with little sense of congruity of content and, whichever way you looked at it, remarkably bitty and insubstantial, as though the organizers were in a hurry to move from one thing to another, not sure of the audience’s attention span.  This trust in pace as a spur to involvement reached its apogee in the Vaughan Williams score where the direction Poco a poco animando brought about a driving urgency that barely slowed down for the climactic Largamente which misfired because of the preceding frenzied build-up.  It delighted the Brandenburgers’ Melbourne fans with its rhetorical passion but it left me unhappy because of its violence, the familiar rolling periods of euphony absent or distorted under this pummeling address.

Not that the ABO strings – expanded for this finale – were working under ideal conditions.  The acoustic properties of the Recital Centre’s Murdoch Hall are not flattering for this meditative  –  or, better, ruminative –  construct and the prevailing mode of delivery without vibrato from most of the players I could see meant that the composition was deficient in weight of timbre, so the musicians compensated for an absence of depth and full-bodied richness of texture with an attack style that eventually bordered on hysteria.  A shame as the opening statements, central quartet fantasy pages and concluding violin/viola duet could not be faulted as well-honed interpretative oases, mobile but measured and valid responses to the composer’s intentions.

Mind you, Dyer had warned us of what was in store: probably the first performance (ever? in Australia?) of this work on period instruments.  And each member of the enlarged orchestra was identified as ‘period violin’, ‘period cello’, and so on.  Was it worth the attempt?  I would say no, apart from the exceptional passages noted above.

Countertenor Max Riebl sang two arias – Purcell’s Song of the Cold Genius from King Arthur, appropriated from the original bass register for unknown reasons – and one of the hero’s arias from Handel’s Orlando, Fammi combattere.  Both have become showpieces for this voice type over the past decade or two and Riebl has them under control, although he gave a more convincing interpretation of the English song, the Italian aria’s lower register passages sometimes swamped by an ever-enthusiastic Brandenburg corps, although the two episodically reinforcing oboes in the score were mercifully absent.

More pertinent matter came earlier in the alto solo for Gibbons’ Great Lord of Lords, a work that expresses celebration in steady, sombre strophes for which Riebl fronted the ABO Choir in an impressive interpretation, appealing for its underlying power and universally exercised control.  For once, the chief soloist was supported by a highly able alto partner, Timothy Chung, and a character-filled bass voice which I think belonged to Craig Everingham.  Like quite a few solos from this body over the past few seasons, these are not temps of the shrinking-violet quality, place-fillers promoted beyond their capabilities, but fully-produced and trained voices making solid contributions to the complex.

As for the ABO in its own Renaissance/Baroque right, it began with an octet doing its best to imitate a chest of viols in Drop, drop slow tears by Gibbons and the same composer’s The silver swan.  For the Abdelazer extracts – Overture and predictable Rondeau  –  the whole body dug into their lines with loads of vim and a cutting attack, moderated a few minutes later for the first two movements of the Handel Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 7 whereas that particular work’s Hornpipe ending might have been more suitably brisk – or perhaps not, as its syncopated bonhomie would have uncomfortably overshadowed yet another boastful and fraught knightly vaunt or six.

Even though out of historical congruity with Tallis, the Curtain Tune from Locke’s The Tempest incidental music came as a welcome intruder with a robust sound across all four lines, the players and their conductor revelling in the sudden flashes from aggressive scale passages, the repeat giving more time to relish the calm discipline of these two staid and compact pages.

Through the ABO Choir, Byrd made an early appearance, represented solely by his Ave verum corpus which experienced reverent treatment although the pauses were so marked that you might have been forgiven for thinking that the interpretation was based on practices promulgated by the latter-day Scandinavian mystical crowd.  Before and after vere passum, after immolatum and after sanguine, the simple one-beat rests dragged out so long that forward momentum was sacrificed to attention-grabbing and performance-debilitating uncertainty.

I think The silver swan was given three times: first by the viol consort substitutes, then by the singers, and again by the strings, after which the Choir gave its version of Drop, drop slow tears; well negotiated and affecting, but then it’s nothing more taxing than a pretty simply harmonised chorale.  Following the rewarding Great Lord of Lords, the Gibbons bracket concluded with the notorious anthem, Hosanna to the Son of David.   This is a staple for any Anglican church choir with ambition, but musically valid performances are rare; the only one I’ve found totally convincing was at an Ely Cathedral evensong some time in July 1976.  The tendency is to allow the bar-line (so to speak) too much importance, whereas the music should be a piling-up of phrases where, for example,  emphasis on ‘to’ in the first clause should be avoided.

Following the positive impression gained from Drop, drop slow tears, the wrenching If ye love me that began the Tallis sequence gave us one of the night’s shortest works but one of its most affecting.  A gentle spread of harmonic movement and care with the textual emphases made this modest gem one of the more compelling stretches of work we heard from these singers, produced with a lulling smoothness that almost made you ignore the lack of body from the four-strong soprano line.  According to the program, five of these singers were to appear; I could only see a quartet.  Perhaps the missing voice was the body’s muscle soprano; whatever the case, here and in the final choral item, the mix would have gained from extra carrying power in the treble line.

Before the Vaughan Williams, we heard the Tallis theme for the Fantasia, Why fumeth in fight.  To make sure we got the tune fixed in our heads, the singers worked through all four verses of Archbishop Parker’s wordy translation of Psalm 2, Why do the nations.  Again, the tune itself in the sopranos tended to be overpowered by the harmonisation contributions from this body’s enthusiastic male altos and strong tenors.

You left this concert in some confusion; well, I did.  The large string band was hard to fault in responsiveness, discipline of ensemble and articulation, particularly when you consider the lack of leeway given by the body’s spartan mode of address and absence of vibrato-providing screening.  In similar vein, you could find few quibbles with the technical apparatus of the ABO Choir.  Yet the interpretations often underwhelmed when they should have swept us away.  Yes, for ‘us’, read ‘me’ because, despite my reservations, the orchestra was treated to a solid wall of applause at the Fantasia‘s conclusion.

But even that point in proceedings seemed a stagey miscalculation.  As Shaun Lee-Chen’s solo violin soared up that slow F minor arpeggio to a top A flat, the lights started going down, so that the final blazing G Major chord that folds into silence was given through a fade-to-blackout ambience when the whole point of the music’s propulsion has been towards a blazing Hildegardean epiphany rather than a John-of-the-Cross dark night.

So much to hear

BACH MARATHON

3MBS

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday February 18

                                                                       Chris Howlett

Chairman of the 3MBS Board Chris Howlett has taken his station’s annual marathon –  a one day series of concerts and recitals focusing on a great name in Western music  –   from the refurbished Hawthorn Town Hall/Boroondara Arts Centre to the all-things-to-all-men Melbourne Recital Centre where a formidable and varied group of musicians played six programs by J. S. Bach and his sons Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christian and Wilhelm Friedemann, as well as a transcription of the D minor Violin Chaconne by Busoni, Liszt’s Variations on a theme of Bach: Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, and one of Mozart’s semi-original/semi-transcriptions of Bach fugues from the K 404a set of 6.

I was surprised to find the Murdoch Hall almost full for the first event, before waking up to the fact that this program featured the largest work – in time and numbers – of the day: C. P. E. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  Well, one of them: during his time in Hamburg, he wrote/compiled 21 settings from the four Evangelists, six of the St. Matthew version.  This one dating from 1777 is not as substantial as that by the composer’s father, from whom he borrowed material (as well as from other contemporaries); fewer arias that commented on the action and much of the choral work was confined to chorales except for the essential turba segments.

Being without a program, I’ve compiled most of the following observations from scribbled notes and various processes of near-recognition allied to an unreliable sense of deja-vu.   But I was startled at the quality of soloists that preceded conductor Rick Prakhoff onto the stage; well, some of them did – three of the character singers, all male, were delayed by some backstage organizational hold-up.

As the Evangelist, Andrew Goodwin set a high standard, enunciating the text with his trademark clarity so that a listener all-too-familiar with Sebastian Bach’s setting of this part of the Gospel could follow the narrative closely.  The Emanuel Bach Evangelist gets few occasions for bravura, the son not being as deliberate in, or as tempted by, word-painting as his father, but the part runs as much more of a continuum because the interpolations are not as common.   In other words, Goodwin sang a lot of solid uninterrupted stretches and, as far as I could tell, made no palpable errors, sharply supported by Calvin Bowman’s chamber organ and showing unflagging awareness of Prakhoff’s direction at those stages where the Evangelist’s text melds into choral action.

Bass-baritone Nicolas Dinopoulos sang Christus with an assurance that recalled Warwick Fyfe’s exertions in the same role during earlier Melbourne Bach Choir Passions.  Just as pliant as Goodwin, this bass made the Gethsemane section a powerful, unsentimental experience and negotiated his line with a no-nonsense gravity during the exchanges with the High Priest and Pilate.

Michael Leighton Jones sang the roles of Judas and Pilate with his usual bluff amplitude, only an audible discomfort with the latter part’s top notes giving cause for disquiet.  But the dialogue for both characters is not substantial and Jones observed the pervading rule of this performance in negotiating his work without self-indulgence or emotive attention-grabbing; not that you can find much of that in a cold administrative fish like the Roman procurator.

Of the other soloists, bass-baritone Jeremy Kleeman impressed mightily right from the first principal aria.  Here was a fully-rounded production without any weak spots, kept pretty forward in the prevailing texture as the singer had to contend with an almost constant doubling, either from violins or bassoon, as though the composer didn’t quite trust his interpreter’s security of pitch; unnecessary in this instance and a bit of on-the-spot editing might have made the singer’s task easier.

Kleeman was also given a second, quick-moving aria, notable for the addition of a pair of flutes (the first time they were used in the score?) which also served a doubling function for much of the time.

Both soprano Suzanne Shakespeare and mezzo Shakira Tsindos took on the minute parts of the servant-girls questioning Peter outside the High Priest’s house.  Both were enlisted for meditative ariosos/arias after Peter’s denial and after Christ’s interchange with Pilate, pages that asked for and received a good deal of plangency but calculated for comfortable singing – nothing like the terrifically exposed female solo lines that the elder Bach wrote.

Timothy Reynolds – another light tenor possessing remarkable agility –  had the more taxing part of Peter and (I could easily be wrong) the lines attached to Caiaphas.  More significantly, this singer enjoyed the work’s final piece of meditative commentary in an arioso+aria after the death of Christ.  This turned out to be the most sustained work  (apart from Goodwin’s marathon) in the entire score and, on first impression, the most technically taxing of the lot.

Along with an appealing timbre, notable for its even spread across the required compass, Reynolds had a tendency to drag the chain; not exactly getting out of time with Prakhoff but needing to be hurried along when the lengthy aria’s vocal curvetting verged on the prolix.

As for the Bach Choir, it got off to a flying start with a splendid opening chorale; vigorous, full-bodied with a clear presence in all parts, functioning as an arresting curtain-opener.  In fact, you were hard pressed to fault the chain of chorales, especially the several appearances of Herzliebster Jesu.  The body was not solely used for these or taking the role of high priests/Pharisees or bloodthirsty population, although I can’t recall much along the lines of Komm, ihr Tochter or Sind Blitzen, sind Donner although one chorus after the High Priest’s condemnation proved memorable for the reinforcement of two horns, probably their first use in the score.

Carl Bach was quite happy – more so than his father – to have his chorus sing passages in unison or at the octave, which is a practice both easy and hard to negotiate happily, but these singers betrayed few signs of stress, least of all at recycled moments like the Lass ihn kreuzigen! and the Ich bin Gottes Sohn outbursts from the crowd, although the sopranos were showing fatigue at the Crucifixion pages.

The Bach Orchestra met Prakhoff’s direction with an excellent response, both individually and collegially, numbering a 21-strong string corps, a flawless brace of oboes as well as the afore-mentioned flute and horn pairs, supplemented by a single bassoon and the omnipresent organ.  Actually, the composer gives few opportunities for obbligato work – if any – but the general texture remained supple and well-etched, its various strata betraying few signs of thinness.

This Passion stops at the death – no space given to the veil of the Temple, earthquakes, centurion, women taking charge of the body, Joseph of Arimathea, chief priests, Pharisees or Pilate.  The choir simply gives one last version of O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden and the work ends on a chastely simple note when compared to the monumental chorus Wir setzen uns  that finishes the elder Bach’s setting.  While you never had the sense that this work erred on the side of conciseness, the conclusion made a profound impression, a sensible and sensitive round-out of the narrative that – and this is a real compliment to all concerned – made you more than a little interested in the other 20 settings in the younger Bach’s catalogue.

After this, the second program startled for its variety.  Violinist Grace Wu partnered with pianist Laurence Matheson in J. S. Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 4 in C minor, the one that starts with a siciliano-suggesting Largo.  The string sound came up to the top of the hall with a satisfyingly easy production; no straining after effects or disruption of the pulse from either musician. This was a modern-day interpretation with no lack of vibrato but a generous fluency displayed by a well-matched and mutually sensitive duo.

Matheson demonstrated a gallant sympathy by keeping his bass line – in fact, all the work’s left-hand action – restrained, moderating his upper work to just the right side of staccato when needed in the first Allegro, a well-argued passage of play from both executants.  A highly effective moment came at the end of the Adagio with some excellent congruent interweaving from bar 57 onward.   Even in the finale, Matheson ceded just enough of the ground to Wu without effacing himself, each player working through its bubbling counterpoint with precision and a delicacy that never seemed effete.

One of the left-field works of the marathon came in Tristan Lee’s presentation of the Liszt variations.  The work is a virtuosic compendium with all kinds of tests, mainly concerned with clarity in sustaining the simple falling motive that Liszt appropriated.  The sole problem in this interpretation was its segmented nature and, looking at the score again, you can see that, often, the cracks are not well-papered; in fact, the more demanding the variations, the more isolated they are in character.

You could not fault Lee’s reading of the opening pages, up to the end of the variations in triplets; when the semiquavers took over, the work’s cumulative tension abated up to the L’istesso tempo marking with its upward-rushing chromatic scales and double-octaves which moved the work into unabashed bravura display and the theme itself became a cipher.  Later, after the recitative, interest returned, specifically at where my edition is marked Quasi Allegro moderato and the theme’s treatment becomes more compressed until the ferment peters out into a bravely optimistic chorale where all the weeping, plaints, sorrows and fears are assuaged.  This transition made for a reassuring sense of completion, excellently realised by Lee even when Liszt decorates the simple harmonization of Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan with rolling arpeggios.

Elyane Laussade brought us back to the mainstream with the popular French Suite No. 5 in G.  Here was a straight reading without affectation or the employment of over-prominent ornamentation; just a soupcon in the repeats.  Speaking of which, Laussade set this listener slightly off-balance by repeating the first half of each movement, but not the second; a quite deliberate choice but an odd one, leaving you feeling formally lopsided. Nevertheless, she maintained a steadiness of focus that gave any listener ample room to taken in the simple exuberance of each part, including the lyrically charming sarabande and loure.

This concert ended with the D minor Double Violin Concerto where the Australian National Academy of Music’s Robin Wilson was partnered by his very young student Christian Li, all of 10 years old and performing with unflappable panache.  You might have thought Li would have been overpowered but he held his own for the most part and contributed to a memorable passage from about bar 123 of the middle Largo where the two soloists intertwine their lines in one of the concerto’s most moving moments.

A justifiably confident attack paid even greater dividends in the final Allegro, taken at a bracing speed but with only a few notes obviously played but not sounding from the younger soloist.  Wilson performed with a no-holds-barred assurance that was well-placed, Li bringing to the work more than a little personality with a few mini-glissandi that spiced up the work’s innate stolidity.

Among the orchestral personnel, I think I saw Merewyn Bramble playing viola, Peter de Jager on harpsichord, with Howard Penny and chairman Howlett the dual cellos.  Throughout, their support mirrored the soloists’ sharp attack and impetus – one of your better scratch orchestras.

Concert 3 found Kathryn Selby in unaccustomed solo mode  –  without friends.  She performed one of the terrors of my student days, the Italian Concerto with its simple-looking but rhythmically confounding counterpoint meshes.  This approach used the piano fully, without flourishes or dynamic juxtapositions but also without mimicking the detached harpsichord-ish effect that some pianists attempt.  The first Allegro proved to be an enviable example of unfussy precision, even at the treacherous bars 135-138 section where, despite the obvious direction and placement of the notes, most players cannot persuade you that the two lines in operation fit together.

Selby’s approach to the D minor Andante erred on the side of emotional control, the movement treated as a sarabande of grave character rather than an angst-laden elegy.  What marked this interpretation out from others was the lack of thunder in the bass: the repeated low Cs from bars 19 to 25 and the mirroring low As from bar 37 to 43 enjoyed a muffled handling rather than a tolling emphasis.

Selby endured some pressure in her Presto finale which, as far as I could tell, was technically exact and enjoyable for its ebullience.  First a spotlight wandered across the back wall of the stage, then the lights dimmed, came back to life, then went out completely for a few seconds before flashing back on again.  The pianist didn’t miss a beat, whether she could see the keyboard or not.

Unfortunately, at this point I felt a distinct lack of interest in the odds and sods that were coming up, including a Christian Bach quartet and the Mozart semi-Bach exercise.  Of course, performances were scheduled for later in the afternoon/evening that would have fleshed out the day’s experience considerably, like the Australian Boys Choir accounting for the Jesu, meine Freude motet, Timo-Veikko Valve playing the last of the cello suites, Stephen McIntyre and his students taking turns at the Goldberg Variations.  But, unlike other more hardy souls in attendance, I’d had sufficient.  It’s a fine exercise, this marathon, but I think you need to prepare – just as for its Olympic-suggestive counterpart – with plenty of training, if you want to last the distance.

 

 

 

 

 

A double ending

CHRISTMAS TO CANDLEMAS: AROUND 1600

Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel

Saturday December 9

                                                                     La Compania

For the last Xavier Chapel program – well, it looks that way, and the Ensemble’s three eastern suburb appearances are moving to Our Lady of Victories Basilica in Camberwell next year –  director John O’Donnell brought in the services of Danny Lucin’s early music musicians, La Compania to flesh out a final night for 2017 of lush, almost corpulent Renaissance Christmas music: both Gabrielis, of course, along with Praetorius, de Lassus, and a single Epiphany motet by Victoria.

The program was rich in choral works for multiple vocal lines, interspersed with three Andrea Gabrieli intonationes and a relatively more substantial ricercar from O’Donnell on chamber organ.  Other instrumental pieces included two canzone by Giovanni Gabrieli for eight voices.  Lucin’s cornetto led the quartet from La Compania – sackbuts Julian Bain, Trea Hindley, Glen Bardwell – and the second instrumental choir was represented by O’Donnell; a mixture that worked well enough, even better after ears had adjusted to the organ’s tuning in mean-tone temperament.

The Gombert numbers had expanded slightly with an additional soprano and tenor in the force and the body’s reliability had also been resumed with the return of some absentees from the previous recital.   In all, the ensemble sang eight works, most of them in company with the four wind and organ.  But in the night’s latter stages, we heard two plain works for the standard four lines: the afore-mentioned Victoria piece, Senex puerum portabat, and the less ornate of the two Lassus representatives, Adorna thalamum: both making for a moment of meditative ease as they celebrated the Presentation in the Temple – the Candlemas of this concert’s title.  Like most of the works performed here, these motets moved swiftly through their texts, over too soon for some of us but handled with confidence and dedication.

But the body of the program comprised music of extraordinary stateliness, polished grandeur which summoned up the spirit of what Renaissance church rituals might have been like – mobile and inspirational but completely controlled in movement and expression.  The combined forces opened with two settings of Resonet in laudibus: the first by Praetorius in seven parts, loaded with full-bodied common chords processing past with solid majesty, then the Lassus version for five voices with more polyphonic interest but just as buoyant in its realization of the Christmas Day-celebrating words.

Andrea Gabrieli’s lavishly coloured Hodie Christus natus est, also instrumentally reinforced/doubled, summoned up the phantom of Venice in 1600 through the organized glory of sound blocks combining, alternating and eventually reaching blazing swathes of rich sonic fabric, particularly the focused relish on the word laetantur and the piling on of concords for the final Alleluia exclamations.  This piece enjoyed an exhilarating performance by both Gomberts and Compania musicians, proposing a form of that controlled ecstasy you hear in the B minor Mass’s Sanctus opening, the emotion kept in harness as the composer looks for intimations of the divine in a music of aspiring solidity.

Nephew Giovanni’s O magnum mysterium for double choir of disparate personnel – the first with two sopranos, alto and tenor, while the second holds an alto, tenor and two bass lines – countering each other and combining for stately interweaving strophes, the whole again typified by dramatic restraint without any vocal adventures and reaching its high point not in the final Alleluia but placing a moving focus on the iacentem in praesepio phrase: the core of the text, picturing the Child lying in a manger.  The first statement is chordal, the second more irregular, yet the effect was intensely moving due to the singers’ incisive delivery.

On either side of the smaller-framed four-voice Victoria and Lassus motets came two powerful works.  The first celebrated the Epiphany, that moment in Matthew’s gospel where the Magi enter the Bethlehem stable, even if Lassus constructs a more expansive picture with not just royalty but Omnes de Saba bringing gifts, the nominated kings coming from Saba (Sheba) with the rest of the population, but from Arabia and Tharsis (Spain or Sardinia? ) as well.  This motet, for double choir, has been sung by the ensemble in previous years, although I can’t remember it coming across with such lustrous majesty; the cornetto and sackbuts might have made a difference in this regard. But the score’s fabric in this performance gleamed with high polish, the smooth and opulent movement underlining the significance of those remarkably outlandish offerings  –  gold and frankincense.

Another Venetian blockbuster made for a memorable farewell to the Xavier Chapel, a building which has been fortunate to witness and host the Ensemble Gombert’s performances for many years.  Giovanni Gabriel’s Nunc dimittis is Simeon’s prayer of gratitude for being allowed to live long enough to see Christ, but it also served as a mutual thank-you between these singers and their loyal audience.  For 14 voices divided into three choirs, this construct proved intensely satisfying for its fusion of massively resonant and fluid motion with a non-indulgent handling of the text.  Mind you, the concluding doxology is just as lengthy as the words of the righteous and devout man from Luke’s gospel that were set by the composer.  But O’Donnell and his forces gave us a most satisfying, driving reading of this High Renaissance gem, a potent reminder of the choir’s outright distinction in this country’s choral ranks.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Greatest of Centuries?

IN HONOUR OF LIFE: 20TH CENTURY SELECTIONS

Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel

Saturday April 29

Frank Martin

                    Frank Martin

 

James J. Walsh, safe in the pre-World Wars harbour of 1907 New York, believed that the Thirteenth was the Greatest of Centuries, and he wrote a lengthy appraisal to prove it.  He may still be right but, considering music, there’s a case for placing the Twentieth as the most significant period in that art’s development.  It’s not just that populations exploded and so did the numbers of musicians; after all, a huge number of them became involved in the post-1950 popular music industry, turning their backs on the development of their art to bog themselves down in endless repetition and debasement to the point where the music itself became secondary to peripherals – costumes, lighting, dry ice –  and where the great world of possibilities released in the field of electronic music was reduced to an endless array of incompetents and non-musicians recycling the trite and the cliched, reducing rhythm to a sub-primal jog-trot, avoiding any harmonic progress beyond Brahms, refusing to employ any material for melody outside a diatonic scale.

Counterbalancing this descent to the gutter, the century enjoyed incredible liberation across every musical parameter, sustaining remarkable leaps in aesthetic theory and virtuosity of performance.  The consoling fact for some of us is that musical craft marches on, despite frequent lurches sideways into mediocrities so that, while the popular bent is to hallow Prince or David Bowie or Jimi Hendrix – none of whom I would have trusted with singing a line in a Palestrina mass – the massive figures of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern and Boulez continue to shine lights onto the compositional practices of our more adventurous (and musically educated) contemporaries.

On Saturday, John O’Donnell and his uncompromising Ensemble Gombert veered once again away from their habitual Renaissance stamping-ground into near-contemporary regions, their program’s chief work being the oldest.   The singers opened their night with in time of, a well-known piece originally produced in 1995 by composer/conductor Stephen Sametz.  This e. e. cummings setting is a representative sample of the Ethereal American, which has some similarities with the pseudo-mysticism of John Tavener and the slew of Baltic composers who favour slender immobility.  Sametz’s work sets the five stanzas in cummings’ botanically referential lyric in straight-through fashion before returning to earlier sections and confounding the text in a striking exhibition of verbal polyphony.  Sametz uses high soprano textures like many of his peers but the music has a dynamic fervour that separates it from the ruck.  Unlike several US performances of this piece, the Gombert version gained clarity from the Xavier Chapel acoustic which exposed the vocal interplay to better effect than the heavy echoes favoured by choirs from across the Pacific.

John McCabe’s Motet from 1979 sets a poem by James Clarence Mangan which sounds like a fusion of Swinburne and Christopher Smart.  The music’s most obviously striking feature comes at the start of each of its nine stanzas on the words Solomon! where is thy throne, and Babylon! where is thy might; wide common chords provide an arresting contrast with the score’s main body with is satisfyingly complicated, a test for the double choir involved.   Like the Sametz preceding it, McCabe’s work sustains a consistent atmosphere, arresting and idiosyncratic.

From 1976 come Mervyn Burtch’s Three Sonnets of John Donne; no recherche surprises here with Oh my blacke Soule!, Batter my heart and Death be not proud.  The first presents on the whole as a contrast between monody and a sparing harmony, both alternating between the lines; in the most famous of the sonnets, Burtch uses unison more sparingly although the vocabulary he employs is chorally congenial with only a few points to cause some eyebrow-lifting – the attack on Yet dearely sounded clumsy, while the magnificent last line begins in monody before branching into parts for the last four words which seem tame for their content; while the last of the trio delighted for the rich treatment of Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie, and the clever alternation of forces in the final couplet. The Welsh composer wrote these settings for simple SATB choir and the Gomberts  – in slightly amplified form with  five each of altos, tenors and basses, and seven sopranos –  invested each sonnet with firm eloquence and some splendid soft chord-work.

Antonin Tucapsky’s In honorem vitae, five Horace settings, also requires only four vocal lines.  The composer has selected the opening stanzas to odes from Book 1 – Nos. 2 (with an extra two words) and 37; the first stanza of Odes II, 14 with the address that rings across the centuries  –  Eheu, fugaces, Postume; the initial stanza of Carmen 9 from Odes IV; and the complete Odes I, 11.

Written in 1975, this composition opens with appropriate vigour for Ne forte credas, before moving into a more severe strain for the second set of verses. Iam satis terris, in ternary shape, employed a dynamically reduced plane.  For Nunc est bibendum, bubbly enough, Tucapsky seemed engrossed by the suggestive clause, nunc pede libero pulsanda tellus, which eventually took over the setting; the address to Postumus made little impression; the last line of the Tu ne quaesieris octet surprised for its employment of fugato – a touch dry after the investment of ardent emphasis on isolated phrases and words like quem mihi, quem tibi, or Ut melius, or sapias.  Still, the composer contrived an intriguing composition with loads of variety in texture as he worked through what he called ‘madrigals’.

It was a source of enjoyment to hear the singers present Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir, one of those choral masterworks that for many years lived an existence outside of performance, given a reputation as un-singable.  These days, its difficulties seem manageable and its alleged fearsomeness is belied by interpretations like this one which shine with facility and consoling humanity.  As for the opening Sametz work, the Xavier chapel proved a gift for this score, despite the carpet that covers most of the building’s floor; the choir enjoyed plenty of resonance, much preferable to a definition-softening echo.

The Christe eleison in the first movement demonstrated very ably how to construct an impressive ecstatic outpouring without losing dynamic control.  Ditto for the racing energy of the Cum Sancto Spiritu of the Gloria, during which Martin gives the basses a hefty presence for the first time in the Domine Deus segment.  You realized the advantages of having this work sung by female voices during the imaginatively mobile Credo; the gain in expressiveness is remarkable, even when compared with the last time I heard this work – from the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge in July last year – a fine reading, certainly, but the Gomberts gave you a more telling vision of the composer’s passionate humanism.

The Sanctus got off to a clumsy start from the Choir I sopranos but both Osanna segments were among the night’s high-points for their bright, light-filled bravura.  The Agnus Dei has Choir Two maintaining a slow march-like tread as it outlines the text while the other force delivers a fluid, near-Gregorian melody in unison, before both bodies combine for the final dona nobis pacem.  At certain stages, the various lines split into two, a device which does not trouble larger choirs.  But the Ensemble rarely sounded attenuated – partly because of their innate musicianship, partly because of Martin’s excellent distribution and allocation of labour.

This Mass capped off a night where the Gomberts showed their ability to turn their combined talents to unexpected enterprises and come through the trials of 20th century compositions with high success.

 

No better way to spend Good Friday

ST. JOHN PASSION

Melbourne Bach Choir and Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Friday April 14

andrew-goodwin

                                                             Andrew Goodwin

After last year’s sterling performance of the St. Matthew Passion, conductor/artistic director Rick Prakhoff elected this Easter to take his Bach singers and instrumentalists into the St. John score, using pretty much the same soloists as in 2016 (their ranks cut a tad because there’s less work to go round).  With the orchestral and choral forces, I can’t comment on any continuity because the program for that event has gone the way of most print.

But the reading was comparable with its predecessor in general security and consistency. Prakhoff pointed out in a program note that he had no intention to present a total period interpretation, complete with gut strings, lute, and oboes di caccia ; rather, he utilised what he found practical in performance methodology and, if it sounded well-rounded or even orotund, the aim was to propose one way to interpret this moving work.  Fair enough, I say; better to have a comfortable sound, even if it suggests 19th century practice, rather than witness players struggle with unreliable instruments or trebles jog-trotting through page after ornate page without a clue of what they’re doing.

The Bach Choir is a large body which packed quite a punch in this hall.   After a suitably restless orchestral ritornello, the opening chorus’s Herr ejaculation came as an abrupt explosion; gripping in effect and setting up the operating ambience for the rest of the night with the instrumental fabric falling into the background, even in power-attenuating polyphonic complexes.  But the sheer mass of singers acted as a kind of brake so that, even as early as the semiquaver-heavy unser Herrscher passage, the action was being pulled back;  a traction that re-appeared later on in turba segments like Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen and Ware dieser nicht ein Ubeltater.  Still, the chorales impressed uniformly, particularly the spot-on attack on the unprepared Part Two opening Christus , der uns selig macht.  The only flaw in these singers’ work was the tentative sound produced by the tenors; for a body that can boast 20 of them, you’d expect a more resonant presence, particularly in fugato entries.

Prakhoff’s orchestra was fortunate in its bass elements, including a willing double bass pair and Matthew Angus’ bassoon.  I couldn’t see much of the band’s interstices but gamba Laura Vaughan apparently offered her skills to the complex obbligato for Es ist vollbracht!; Jasper Ly and Nicole Misiurak alternated oboes with cor anglais for the da caccia appearances late in the score;  flutes Jennifer Timmins and Alyse Faith made a clean sweep of Ich folge dir gleichfalls, leader Susan Pierotti led a safe string corps and generated a driving top line in the Betrachte/Erwage double.

If you had to typify this performance succinctly, you’d call it forthright.  None of the soloists showed any sign of lingering over his/her work and the standard of production veered towards clear-cut definition with little space for sentiment or supple elisions. Once again, Warwick Fyfe sang the Christus role but with an adamantine firmness; this was no figure of pathos but an activist, speaking with directness to everyone from the apostles to Pilate.  For those of us brought up on the tradition of Christ’s words being encased in a nimbus of sustained string chords, Fyfe’s interpretation represents a novel approach where the text’s drama is dominant and the impetus towards death is unabated.

Also continuing from 2016, Andrew Goodwin sang the Evangelist with, if possible, even more distinction.  This tenor has a flawless delivery, projecting each note across his compass with an exemplary balance; not gabbling the lengthy slabs like Die Juden aber and the narrative-ending Darnach bat Pilatum but vaulting sensitively through the recitatives, maintaining the sense of John’s gospel, although prepared to give rein to the slow chromaticism of Peter’s weeping and that hurtling descending flight at the description of Christ’s scourging.   Singing of this elating assurance is experienced rarely these days, and Goodwin struck a fine balance between empathy and simple story-telling; for most of us, I’d suggest, we felt privileged to be in the hall each time the tenor stood up.

Lorina Gore was among the revenants, gifted in this work with two arias only.  Her sprightliness of delivery served well in Ich folge dir gleichfalls, interweaving to telling effect with the escorting flutes; later in the ornate Zerfliesse, mein Herze, the soprano’s craft shone through in her negotiation of the exquisitely figured vocal line and in a well-judged handling of breath control in some difficult legato passages.

Dominica Matthews sang the Passion’s alto arias; she did not feature among the preceding year’s soloists but put her own stamp on this work, handling her allotted arias with a firmness that mirrored her male colleagues.  Her version of the pivotal Es ist vollbracht! proved excellent for its sense of forward motion, in tune with the general dynamic of this performance.  Matthews made sure of offering maximum contrast when the pace quickened for the Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht pages, a riveting explosion of bravura in the middle of an elegy.

Henry Choo was indisposed by a back injury, which meant that he carried out his work but then retired backstage rather than sitting in front of us for the performance’s length. You could hear no signs of stress in his athletic Ach, mein Sinn, the top As in this aria’s central section punched out with a vigour that typified the tenor’s approach to these restless pages.  And his energy remained constant in that exhausting Erwage aria which holds three of the entire work’s most continuous passages of rest-less singing; luckily, Choo has a bright, clarion-clear timbre that made following his line a rare pleasure.

Bass Jeremy Kleeman impressed in the St Matthew Passion and enjoyed similar success on Friday.  While Part One held little content apart from some recitative contributions, he produced a pair of stalwart gems in the score’s second part where the soloist is interrupted/escorted by choral forces; first, with sopranos, altos and tenors in the scale-rich Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen handled here with  deftly-controlled restlessness; then, in one of the work’s most consolatory sequences, the chorale Jesu, der du warest tot underpinning the lilting Mein teurer Heiland – a stretch of unabashed candour in this Passion’s high drama and a joy for any bass.

So yet again, the organization achieved a successful Good Friday commemoration, giving Bach’s formidable score a fine airing, crowned by a real sense of accomplishment with a fervent declamatory attack on the concluding Herr Jesu Christ, erhore mich, ich will dich preisen ewiglich!   On which promise, the Bach Choir, Orchestra and soloists delivered handsomely.

 

 

A classic up close

MONTEVERDI VESPERS OF 1610

Ensemble Gombert

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday February 13

john-odonnell

                                                               John O’Donnell      

Fitting the Vespers into the smaller of the Recital Centre’s spaces made for a pretty solid challenge.   John O’Donnell used a version of the score that I’ve not heard before which does without the rich orchestral fabric of the full-scale version, reducing all Monteverdi’s support potential to a chamber organ, from which the body’s founder directed his 22-strong choir.   In the Salon, we were all well-involved with the performance and quite a few faces that present as mere blips in the distance at Xavier College Chapel – the Gomberts’ usual theatre of action – took on added interest; not simply for being distinctive but also for the physical exertion involved in their labour, here seen at close range.

As you’d expect, the advantages of proximity for Monday night’s audience were balanced by some benefits for the singers.  Primarily, the pressure involved in making the five psalms’ linear and chordal interplay resonate was alleviated by the fact that projection could be achieved with less strain than is required in a large church space.  Yes, you lost an initial surge of excitement which bursts out at the opening to the full version where the composer revisits his Orfeo prelude with a massive instrumental array (as most performances present it) contesting with the choral forces.  But every note carried and made its mark, and the choral fabric impressed for its lucidity: lines that usually get lost in the mesh could be discerned, even in pages like the 10-part Nisi Dominus.

In general, this performance succeeded most fully in the large-frame movements where all present were involved; the early Dixit Dominus and Laudate pueri impressed for the vivid power of the dozen female voices while the tenor thread in Lauda Jerusalem came over with a quietly resonant consistency, although the concluding doxology to this movement turned out to be the performance highlight for me, particularly striking for the precision of the off-beat entries during the last Amen pages.

The last time I heard this work, at the opening to the 2014 Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival, conductor Gary Ekkel used soloists of some stature for the motet/concerto movements that interleave the psalms of these vespers.  O’Donnell followed his usual practice of giving all solo lines to his Gombert members; although the choir was slightly expanded in size for this occasion, as far as I could tell everyone took part in the choral movements.

Much of the night’s weight fell on tenor Tim van Nooten who expounded the solo Nigra sum, shared the Duo Seraphim with Vaughan McAlley (and, later, with Peter Campbell) and took on the main burden of Audi coelum.  His voice is hard to characterise: clean and carrying, not aggressive in attack, holding something of a countertenor’s detachment but without any stridency.  The only noticeable problem – and that appeared mainly in his early solos – was a running-out of breath, so that the endings of certain phrases verged on the dangerously tenuous.

Carol Veldhoven, one of the Gombert veterans, worked impressively with Katherine Lieschke in the Pulchra es motet, and with commendable security in the concluding Magnificat a 6 where the same pair made a fair fist of Monteverdi’s echo effects.  The bass soloist in the Laetatus sum psalm was competent and professional, but I couldn’t recognize him, even at close quarters.

Still, the individual singers gave the impression of being under stress during their moments of exposure; nothing came easy and, although correctly dutiful for the most part, they were at their most effective when moving back to reinforce the general population.

In this version, as well as missing the initial splendour of dotted-rhythm energy, you also do without the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria which comes close to the end and is one of the full work’s least effective movements despite (because of?) its simplicity.  And the concluding Magnificat on this night was negotiated rapidly – the second of the two available, I believe.   Yet the reading made for a satisfying and involving experience, drawing you in by the sheer grittiness of music-making being carried out within arm’s reach.  You might have reservations about the soloists’ assurance but this choir in full flight has a vehemence and informed impulse that engrosses and can often enthral.