Heavy round the middle

AUSTRIAN ENCOUNTERS

Australian Boys Choir/ Vocal Consort

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Sunday May 22, 2022

Following an out-of-town performance in Geelong’s St. Mary’s Basilica, the Australian Boys Choir/Vocal Consort combination, supported by an unpressured Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra, worked through an attractive program on Sunday afternoon in the Sacred Heart Church, Carlton: the last venue in which I heard these singers before leaving Melbourne for the defrosting North. When I say ‘attractive’, I mean, of course, attractive to me, bouncing off many years of trying to resurrect Classical-era masses in the choir loft of Sacred Heart Church, Kew; to its credit, not the most intransigently backward-looking post-Vatican II congregation in the city.

Artistic director/conductor Nicholas Dinopoulos took his combined forces through two Litaniae Lauretanae – one by the young Mozart, the other one of three settings by Haydn’s younger brother, Johann Michael – each preceding a mass: first, the Missa Brevis ‘Sancti Joannis de Deo’ by Joseph Haydn; finally, Mozart’s Spatzenmesse K. 220. As soloists, we heard soprano Suzanne Shakespeare, contralto Emily Bauer-Jones, tenor Henry Choo, and baritone Stephen Marsh. A central chamber organ played a fulcrum role, manipulated by Michael Fulcher. Oh, and a welcome encore involving most parties was Mozart’s Laudate Dominum from the K. 339 Vespers of 1780.

If you were looking for faults in these performances, they were fairly rare – apart from one rather large one: not enough sopranos. From the camera work supplied by the Australian Digital Concert Hall, it was hard to tell which members of the red-surpliced central corps of singers were handling the top line, and how many were contributing to a quite forward alto layer. I understand that illness had depleted the treble ranks – the luck of the performance-supervising gods these days – but a lack of soprano gusto told pretty early in the program’s first element: the Mozart litany. By the time the ensemble had reached the Kyrie movement’s second ‘miserere’ in bar 20, the top F sounded ‘off’; not that this unreliability lasted, but it’s the kind of flaw that is best insured against by finding accuracy through reinforcing numbers.

We heard the four soloists early in the following Sancta Maria; a well-matched group, apart from the two males’ tendency to relish their own sound. An odd factor that persisted through all four works was incidental but distracting: from tenors or basses in the chorus, there was a practice of emphasizing certain initial consonants or fricatives, so that ‘clemens’ or ‘causa’ in this movement came across as near-Welsh. Still, the musical contours were fluent here, and also in the consequent Salus infirmorum and Regina caelorum, Emily Bauer-Jones a capable if hard-pressed contributor to the latter.

For the final Agnus Dei, in the choral output at bars 27 to 30 for the last repetition of ‘qui tollis peccata mundi’, the top line simply disappeared for most of the time; probably because of the lower-lines’ supporting trombones, a trio that had played with discretion up to this stage. But the sopranos managed the awkward G flats and A flats of this concluding movement’s final bars with equanimity.

Onto the Little Organ Mass by Joseph Haydn and again the sopranos wavered in the soft Fs of bars 9-10. But then, you could not fault their delivery of the G and F at bar 19 and the F of the second ‘Kyrie’ in bar 22. This mass’s Gloria is a telescoped melange where each line has a separate text – getting through the liturgy at break-neck speed in 31 bars – while everyone comes back into communal focus when the Holy Spirit appears. Much the same takes place in Haydn’s Credo, with conformity of text at the ‘Et incarnatus’ through to ‘sepultus est’, before the singers go their four separate paths until the declaration of eternal life comes around, at which point we all reassuringly find common ground. Both these Mass sections are hard to decipher (did Haydn mean them to be intellectually coherent?) but the passages of textual uniformity provided welcome resting stages. We had further sibilant stresses: ‘sepultus’, ‘Sancto’, even ‘Crucifixus’ which scored a consonantal attack that would have done credit to a Sassenach-belittling Glaswegian.

In the Sanctus, the choral rhythmic impulse proved very satisfying, those passages in thirds between sopranos and altos at bars 23 and 27 a high-flying delight. Fulcher’s solid organ solos for Haydn’s Benedictus proved to be just that: without much flexibility and not as precise in a few scale passages as you might have expected. Shakespeare’s solo came across with fine purity of output; some breath points sounded oddly positioned, compensated for by a smooth treatment of that challenging 12th leap in bar 47. Still, the overall approach to this movement struck me as too fast, the organ’s right-hand work very prominent, although to be sure small organs don’t leave you with much latitude in timbre choices.

Plenty to appreciate in the Agnus Dei, especially the choral ensemble’s unanimity of attack on the block chords that obtain before Haydn reaches his ‘dona nobis pacem’ settings. In this noble fabric, the emphasis of the first letter in ‘qui’ was unnecessarily intrusive; but then, so were the two lower lines at the movement’s climactic explosion of bar 50 where the sopranos disappeared. Nevertheless, the reading of this mass succeeded for its assurance of delivery, the choral fabric supported by a pliant ARCO ensemble.

After interval came a true curiosity in the junior Haydn’s litany setting, probably receiving its first Australian performance; indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find reports of any other renderings since the work’s first publication around 1765. Fulcher’s organ played an important instrumental role in the initial Kyrie eleison; once again, a few digital errors interrupted the right hand’s decorative outpouring. But the trumpet duo and timpani support lightened the prevailing ambience considerably. For the Sancta Maria, Dinopoulos opted for a measured semi-slow march tempo, while the scourifying enthusiasts continued with a vehement last syllable articulation of ‘mystica’ and made more hay with ‘Consolatrix’ (bar 77) and ‘Christianorum’ (bar 84). Haydn’s polyphonic interplay proved occasionally thick in these pages, complicated by the trombones working in vocal support – a sonorous factor I wasn’t expecting, given the participants in my score.

Again, the disappearing sopranos problem emerged at odd moments in Regina angelorum, e.g. the admittedly low tessitura from bar 29 during which the altos took charge. But the singers aren’t over-exercised in this section, the main aural interest emerging in the interchanges between organ and violins across two entertaining interludes. A top G required in bar 1 of the Agnus Dei made a hefty demand very early in the finale; but later, at bar 14, the youngest singers had no trouble generating a resonantly full and forceful projection. And the entire body, singers and instrumentalists, bounced happily to the score’s conclusion in an infectious 12/8 fugato-rich sequence that teetered on the verge of being too clever for its own material. A highly intriguing work, in the end, and I hope the Choir keeps it fresh in its repertoire.

There’s little to report about the familiar Mozart Mass in C. I would have been happier if the composer’s crotchets had been given their full worth throughout the Kyrie. One of the most elevating experiences of the afternoon came in the Gloria with its choir-soloists alternations,. in particular the elated joy that starts after ‘Qui sedet’ and here climaxed in a benign 15-bar ‘Amen’. I’d forgotten the strikingly dramatic effect of those triple-stop violin chords at ‘Crucifixus’, not to mention Mozart’s restraint in not lingering over the tragic core of the Credo. Dinopoulos set a brisk pace for the Sanctus with its bird-imitating violin strokes starting at bar 8, his sopranos in unexpectedly fine fettle here.

Shakespeare shone again in the intervening Benedictus; not surprisingly, as the soprano line has a melody while her colleagues are restricted to providing chordal support. This made an effective contrast to the surrounding happy ‘Hosanna’ acclamations which found the choir happily home-bound. Nonetheless, the top line impressed as pretty tired at the ‘miserere’ conclusion to the second Agnus Dei (the very exposed bars 32 to 37). You can always count on a rallying of strength for a Classic-era mass’s final Allegro; so it was here with a forceful finish to this easy-flowing gem.

Shakespeare enjoyed a third exposure in the encore, a piece which has the great virtue of benign reflection rather than technical display; a moving lyric which asks for calm articulation and a capacity for long breaths. Dinopoulos handled this final exhibition of his singers at work with quiet control and a sincerity of purpose that kept his audience rapt for some time at its conclusion. You rarely get tributes to your work as sincere as that.

New consort in a crammed program

HOTHEADS AND LOVERS

Castalia

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Thursday April 7, 2022

Louis Hurley, Chloe Lankshear, Philip Murray, Simon Martyn-Ellis, Amy Moore, Stephanie Dillon, Christopher Watson

There’d be those who think that we should always find room for another vocal consort; others might think that you’d need to be pretty good to start such a body, given the high standard of some ensembles these days. With regard to standards, I’m not talking about a creditable fact of musical life in Australia: the best that’s currently on offer here is several levels lower in quality than what’s coming out of England, America, the Baltic states and Japan. The first consort of voices that I ever heard live was that headed by Alfred Deller which performed in Wilson Hall (1964?) when I was an undergraduate; with very few exceptions, even from big-name internationals, it’s been downhill since then.

So I’m a tad jaundiced when such an ensemble announces itself, even when it arrives with lashings of enthusiasm. Here comes Castalia, taking its name from my favourite Delphic spring. This online recital seems to have been a recording of the group’s debut performance at the aMBUSH Gallery in Waterloo, Sydney on February 12 this year. Which rather surprised me, although it shouldn’t have; I was labouring under the pre-conception that this recital would be live, like most of the Australian Digital Concert Hall events that I experience. In looking up the ensemble’s website to identify the individual singers, matching names to faces, I came upon some ‘reviews’ of the February 12 program – published observations that, like so much similar writing these days, has nothing to do with criticism but more with offering ludicrously inflated praise alongside a dearth of information about the work attempted.

In an attempt to demonstrate versatility, the Castalia sextet gave us a mixture of the time-honoured and the very new (well, almost). We heard 21 pieces in all, two of them instrumental from theorboist/lutenist Simon Martyn-Ellis; most of the madrigals emerged from across the Renaissance (surprise, surprise), with a throwback to Landini and a trio of throw-forwards – to American writer Caroline Shaw’s 2016 setting of a Renaissance text, to Italian historical tear-off Salvatore Sciarrino’s 2008 Rosso, cosi rosso, and to the still-desperately contemporary Englishman Michael Finnissy and his take on a mad scene, Quel ‘no’ crudel of 2012. Too much? Despite the pretty seamless co-ordination of personnel, the experience proved rather opaque as pieces melded into each other, despite the audience’s insistence on applauding every one. Castalia had organized its program in seven sections, but the temptation to clap when silence broke out was too great to be resisted.

As the first of their Dolcissimi collation, the group worked through Arcadelt’s Il bianco e dolce cigno, a solo female voice singing the verse through before the other three lines joined in for a restatement with lute underpinning; a gentle, modest first gambit. Gesualdo’s Luci serene e chiare made a telling platform for Chloe Lankshear‘s soprano; the work is not as difficult as some of the Prince of Venosa’s effusions and the five singers handled its demands with ease, making a fine passage out of the central homophonic O miracol d’amore across bars 38 to 40. Something went wrong in the later stages of Strozzi’s Silentio nocivo where all lines had their final turn with affetuose from bar 107 on; an early entry, possibly. Last in this opening group, Monteverdi’s Si ch’io vorrei morire lacked dynamic variety in its opening pages but an erotic suggestion from the second tenor line at Ahi bocca perked up a rather staid reading of this ambiguous marvel.

As an odd opening to the second grouping, Primavera, Martyn-Ellis performed the first of Piccinini’s chiaconne, which is agreable enough to be Spring-suggestive. One of my many defects is that I can’t read tablature but it seemed to me that this reading was a few variants short; as well, the soprano quaver (for want of a better word) runs occasionally suffered from a mis-step., and the final bars sounded tame. Both tenors (Louis Hurley, Christopher Watson) worked through another truncation in Landini’s Ecco la primavera with Lankshear providing a supporting tambour – the whole medieval intrusion negotiated very rapidly and gaining little by the tenor substitution for a more resonant bass timbre. Another Monteverdi rounded off this segment: Io mi son giovinetta. This is another buoyant and bouncy stream of inventive responses to a text (by Boccaccio?) with an ambiguous, possibly minatory ending.

Augelli opened appropriately enough with Casulana’s Vaghi amorose augelli, its original four vocal lines reduced to a middle register-rich duet for Stephanie Dillon‘s mezzo and lute. A clever balance followed with Settimia Caccini’s Cantan gl’augelli for which soprano Amy Moore was accompanied by Martyn-Ellis’s theorbo, although I found this treatment to be pretty strict in metre but gifted with an elegantly contrived conclusion. The first of the three contemporary works ended this bracket: Caroline Shaw’s Dolce cantavi for three female voices to a text by a Renaissance contessa. In a pretty continuous chordal movement, the composer has produced a clever piece of mimicry, her piece distinguished by an individual modulatory quirk or two and slotting into its environment here with remarkable facility.

Up next, a Crudelta grouping, beginning with yet another solo, this time from tenor Watson with a rich bass support from theorbo for Giulio Caccini’s Amor, io parto. Yet another instance of contrasting rates of activity, this song impressed for its rhythmic curvaceousness with some intriguing ornamentation; was that a 1610 Vespers-type set of repeated quavers on the final A in bar 26? Strangely, the following Crudel acerba by Arcadelt came over as emotionally bland, despite an increased vocal expansion to a quintet with lute support. A pity, as the setting is a potentially sonorous plaint. Finishing the hard-done-by nature of this segment, the group presented an intriguing rarity by Sigismondo d’India: Se tu, Silvio crudel. After a solid solo from Lankshear, the madrigal broadened out into five parts and a textural contrast between rapid block chords and interleaving duets, the whole a dramatic highlight handled with some welcome urgency.

Who better than Gesualdo to kick off a set called Infiammare? Castalia gave a reliable reading of ‘Merce!’ grido piangendo, treating its chromatic shifts and shocks with excellent ease, making a sensible creature out of the infamous Moro, dunque tacendo bars (12-17) and sailing through the remarkable shifts that begin at bar 28. My only quibble came with the last chord which I would have liked to be sustained longer – a safe arrival after a whale of a journey. Sciarrino’s study in red asked for a vocal quintet (all singers bar Hurley), proving to be strong on glissandi and some pointillist bursts, the work heavily atmospheric, although I was left in the dark as to what was being achieved. Much the same for Finnissy’s restless duet with Lankshear and Moore chasing each other’s cues in a high tessitura with some squeals and squalls to unsettle your expectations. The composer’s vocabulary remains as fluent and acerbic as in earlier instrumental pieces that I’ve come across: these latter were extremely challenging to examine and penetrate, although the actual outcomes didn’t sound anywhere near as aurally confrontational as they looked. Strozzi’s L’amante modesto enjoyed brisk handling – and it is substantial, peppered with sudden changes in timbre and rhythm that might have brought out the best in all six singers if the lower lines like that of Philip Murray had been more clear in articulation. A slight error of timing disrupted the flow at about bar 121 but I couldn’t trace the fault.

The solitary occupant of a Tirsi e Clori segment was Monteverdi’s Rimanti in pace; a bit puzzling, as the dialogue of the madrigal is between Thyrsis and Phyllis. For this piece, Lankshear rested, as did Martyn-Ellis; they were sadly missed when some of the chord work impressed as skimpy, possibly due to passing uncertainty in the middle voices. But it is a solid work, demanding in its occasionally transparent scoring.

Finally, we came to Sospiri, beginning with Capirola’s Recerchar primo; not a really happy experience with some passages of uneven delivery and several muffed notes that proved too obtrusive to be ignored. First of the Verdolets, Quante dolceca amore, has been recorded by Watson who sang it with lute support. Both musicians demonstrated a well-honed partnership with a fetching breadth of phrasing throughout this short work. Then all singers joined in for Ultimi miei sospiri, a splendid sample of emotional self-flagellation couched in limpid and mobile textures that gave this recital-exhibition a well-honed, surprise-free ending.

New clothes for Christmas

HARK!

The Song Company

Melbourne/Australian Digital Concert Hall

Tuesday December 21, 2021

St. Philip’s Church, Sydney

Pretty much everything that has happened to The Song Company over recent years has escaped my notice. The group made several visits to Melbourne during my last years there, performing at the Recital Centre with impressive results; I believe Roland Peelman conducted at a few of these programs, although he resigned from his directorship in 2015, about four years prior to the organization being put into receivership and the unholy mess that followed. All the singers that I saw then have left the ensemble; the octet for Tuesday night’s live-stream program from Sydney’s St Philip’s Church in York Street featured completely new faces/voices, and any efforts to identify them all have met with little success.

This online experience was actually the middle one of five performances presented over three afternoons/nights from St. Philip’s and its companion Garrison Church over the hill in Miller’s Point. A thematically well-ordered program divided into four sections found the Company covering a wide range of repertoire, setting the celebratory ball rolling with O come, o come, Emmanuel pronounced by a male solo in Latin before the rest of the singers joined in to work through all eight verses – which rather threw me because I’d only ever come across seven – variety here catered for through groovy harmonic changes and soprano descants that increased in range and intensity. All of this was handled without the support of organist Kurt Ison; when he and his instrument entered for the last verse, the choral body had slipped slightly in pitch. It’s always a risk, that device, and probably best left on one side or not attempted so blatantly, no matter how secure the singers.

Conductor/associate artistic director Francis Greep was working from two compilations new to me: the Naxos Book of Carols and the Patmos Book of Carols. In fact, 10 of the 18 works heard on this program came from the Naxos collection, 2 from the Patmos, one appeared to be a fusion of both Patmos and Naxos – a sort of Dodecanese-Cycladic melange – and five were original compositions or arrangements by contemporary writers: one-time professional cartoonist Brian Kogler (two carols), indigenous musician Elizabeth Sheppard, Sydney lawyer Rachel Scanlon, and British singer Richard Eteson. This all made for an invigorating experience, as the Oxford Book of Carols and Jacques/Willcocks/Rutter Carols for Choirs compendia were swept aside in a welter of novelty.

Coming from the once-free north, I didn’t know that masks had been instituted (re-instituted?) in Sydney and this twilight audience was hard pressed to participate in the congregational numbers: Hark! the herald angels sing, Silent night, Away in a manger, and O come, all ye faithful – so much so, that the Company proved very powerful in dynamic, unlike the usual experience where people in pews discover lungs and diaphragms that have rested unused all year. Of course, this prominence might also have had something to do with the M/ADCH recording system. Whatever the cause, we heard all Company personnel clearly in whatever was being sung.

A regular at many Christmas services, The Angel Gabriel from the Basque territory here enjoyed new garb with a hummed first statement before the first verse began. Here came some harmonic shifts from the version that we all know, if not love. In less try-hard territory, the singers’ articulation and clarity of notes made a striking impression, particularly for a group that is new to their work. A group of three pieces combined came next – A Song of Joy, Christmas Day, and The Song of Angels – all ascribed to Orlando Gibbons. Well, I knew the last by name but its precedents left me out in the dark, even if the singers’ delivery again impressed for its clarity and balance.

Mendelssohn came upon us with the refreshment of different linear content, a very prominent organ, and a striking descant that would have proved improbably difficult for your common or garden-variety church choir. Moving into the second quarter, as we say in the AFL, The Holly and the Ivy had acquired a new tune from the BBC archives and this novelty was entwined with the regular Cecil Sharp-collected melody which was entrusted to a solo bass, a tenor-and-alto duo, then a soprano-and-bass combination (I think: this vagueness comes from hasty notes scribbled down while trying to find the new tune’s origin) with an impressive fusion in the final verse/chorus.

In another Continental excursion, the Company sang Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, according to Michael Praetorius. As far as I could hear, the first two verses were trios with all in for verse 3 – an arrangement I’ve not come across before – but the intra-linear spatial balance proved to be one of the program’s delights. Back home, we were just settling in to Kogler’s The King of Blis – which presumably used the same text as John Rutter had in 2010 – when it stopped! To be followed by the Silent night feast for the Company, with a solo male voice adding in some passing excrescences to the middle verse while his companions provided a hummed backdrop, the whole capped by a sad glissando on the first ‘born’.

Sheppard’s Mary, gentle Mother brought about a change in position for the singers but what actually came across was predictable and Anglican-sweet with an orthodox harmonization, although the composer displayed a deft realization of texture in her moves from homophony to part-writing. Baby Jesus, hush! now sleep was the Rocking Carol of Czech origin, notable for a brisk harmonic surprise in bar 2. Again, the ensemble’s carefully applied equanimity impressed, even when the linear texture increased in complexity. Britten made the Balulalow text inseparable from his A Ceremony of Carols setting, although a few composers have made their own versions, including Brisbane’s own Colin Brumby. Rachel Scanlan’s version suffered from an unclear women’s contribution at the beginning, but the work improves when it starts at Oh my dear heart and captures attention for its insightful response to the Wedderburn brothers’ words and for an unexpectedly brisk conclusion.

Part the Third’s finishing mark, Away in a manger, found the tenors riding the blast across Verse 1 in a Naxos arrangement that seemed to put off the congregation. In the choir-only Verse 2, something odd happened at the end of line 2, a move that I couldn’t put my finger on although it left the sense of an unflattering flattening. Whoever improved on William J. Kirkpatrick’s original was still aiming to keep the tenors on the qui vive in the final stanza.

Into the final phase and we encountered It came upon the midnight clear by Jonathan Pitts, a relative of Song Company artistic director Antony Pitts. An organ fanfare led into a monolinear opening strain, followed by a harmonized stanza, before reverting to the opening’s atmosphere of hushed excitement at going nowhere. And still they came: an alto solo leading to stately chorale sounds and a return to a sort of neo-syncopation at For lo! the days are hastening on, and an under-emphatic organ at the conclusion. Kogler emerged again with an aphoristic contribution in Gaudete. I heard the pendant Christus est natus/Ex Maria virgine,/gaudete! lines, even if the composer was livening things up by having his singers clap to punctuate their single line. It’s a lively piece, welcome in this context but – as with Kogler’s previous The King of Blis – it didn’t stick around long enough to make a lasting impression.

Eteson has used the tune Gallants Come Away as the basis for his version of A Jolly Wassel-Bowl, which has twelve stanzas because it was to be performed on Twelfth Night. The combinations offer variety – males, females, male duet, female duet, monolinear, rich harmonization, mixed duet, change of metre, full choir with descant. But it wears out its welcome – how could it be otherwise? – like Tchaikovsky’s employment of folk-song; a little dressing-up doesn’t take you very far. Nearing the end, the Company’s reading of In dulci jubilo boasted a line of sources: Praetorius, Bach and Stainer – the lot arranged by Antony Pitts. This might have worked to better effect with more variety of dynamic but little stuck out from the clever arrangements beyond an unexpected simplicity at Nova cantica and In regis curia. Good King Wenceslas from the Naxos collection again offered some sophisticated harmonic alterations but I found the organ contributions to be the main point of interest in this well-worn classic.

Full time. Here the lack of congregational input sounded most apparent. A vox populi presence was allowed in Verse 2 – the words were printed in the program – but, by this stage, it seemed as if the St. Philip’s turba was following the practice in many other churches where the experts are left alone at this point. Verse 3 employed a descant in canon, which seemed a trifle attention-grabbing; something similar happened with the grating chords at Word of the Father.

Nevertheless, this evergreen concluded a ceremony-of-sorts that removed decades of verdigris. Not all of it was congenial, especially to listeners heavy with preconceptions and expectations of a familiar experience; with respect and congratulations to the Patmos/Naxos innovations, I’m unsure what future these new interpretations will have outside professionally distinguished choirs like this ensemble. Still, I found cause for gratification in the continued existence of the Song Company and appreciate the efforts by Greep and Pitts to persevere in shaping a future for the ensemble: still one of the more impressive and meritorious blooms in Sydney’s serious music chaplet.

We won’t all be home for Christmas

THE OCTAVE OF CHRISTMAS

Melbourne Octet

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.

Working well if underpowered

BACH TO BOWMAN

Melbourne Bach Choir

St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Brighton

Saturday May 22, 2021

Conductor/founder Rick Prakhoff directed an underpowered collection of his Bach Choir on Saturday in a program that had to be altered, apparently due to the number of choristers who were out sick. In essence, the change was a simple swap: we didn’t hear Bruckner’s Ecce sacerdos motet but were treated to organist Calvin Bowman‘s reading of the Bach chorale-prelude Ich ruf zu dir. And that’s an experience worth the price of entry, coupled as it was with Bowman’s earlier airing of more Bach in the Christ ist erstanden chorale-prelude. Not that we lacked Bruckner completely: the choir worked through the composer’s Locus iste, Christus factus est and Ave Maria for openers, and a brass trio gave us the Aequale No. 1 later in the night.

For the rest, we were offered more trombone work in the three Beethoven Aequale WoO 30, the Geistliches Lied by Brahms for choir and organ, Bach’s three-verse setting of Christ ist erstanden by way of prelude to Bowman’s chorale-prelude account, and three Bowman works, all of them sacred settings: Regina caeli, Ave Maria and a large-scale Pater noster for almost the same forces as the relegated Bruckner Ecce sacerdos, which, I assume, it was meant to complement.

A varied entertainment, with 11 segments, played/sung to what looked like a full church with a splendid organ, although one in need of repairs, it seems; Bowman has recently been appointed music director of St. Andrew’s Brighton and his craft will be put to work regularly on this refurbished instrument if/when the money is raised.

The choristers began by easing themselves into the night, the Locus iste gaining some interest at the chromatic slides at the irreprehensible est passage at bar 22. This apart, the motet is plain-speaking, in this reading keeping to a narrow path with not much give-and-take in the metre until a ritardando from bar 44 to the end. In the following Christus factus est, Prakhoff took an amiable pace for his Moderato, misterioso and it suited his forces, although range was another matter; I couldn’t hear the low F at bar 15 when the basses introduced the word crucis into the mix. For the most part, the texture proved smoothly fluent, although the tenors sounded constrained at their quod est entry in bar 44. I know it’s hard to differentiate, but the pp entries starting at bar 65 were pretty much the same level as at the triple piano called for in my edition beginning at bar 71. Also four-square in outline was the Ave Maria in which altos, tenors and basses are split in two, but the climactic gathering of the clans at the Jesus of bars 19-20 would have benefitted from some less eager altos. Nevertheless, despite is seven lines, this work is pretty plain sailing for a choir as competent as this one.

For the Bach chorale, Prakhoff reinforced his singers with trombones to produce a firm, cogent mass of timbres, most moving at each repetition of Kyrieleis where each verse comes to a quietly jubilant conclusion. Bowman’s reading of the Orgelbuchlein‘s chorale-prelude impressed for its fluidity, especially its realization of the inbuilt bounce of verses 1 and 2 before the invention blazes out in the final setting where the double-quaver underpinning dilates to three, here with a powerful bank of reeds in full cry.

From the ordering in my edition of the Beethoven Aequale, the brass ensemble played the three works in the order 1-3-2. The first in D minor sounded rushed, although the players’ production could not be faulted. No. 3 – all 16 bars of it – presented confidently if sharing the choir’s tendency to set a rhythm and stick to it without the slightest chance of marginally elongating a rest. My only problem was not being able to discern the Trombone 4’s low B flat in the last chord.

The Bruckner brass trio followed and again showed acceptably accurate intonation except at two sustained semibreves in bars 8 and 24; both G major triads and not hard to pitch. The only other flaw came in the penultimate bar where the alto seemed to run out of breath/sustaining power on the rather important B natural..

In what I thought was the best music-making of the night, the choir gave a well-prepared reading of Brahms’ yearning sacred song, the canonic entries firmly enunciated and pitched across the three verses, Bowman a subtle accompanist offering plenty of support. As Prakhoff promised, the concluding Amen impressed for its sweet benevolence and a carefully restrained climactic point across bars 59 and 60, the only problem area a rough octave leap from the basses at bar 58.

Apart from Bowman’s interpolation of the Ich ruf zu dir chorale-prelude to replace the Bruckner with its high As and B flats for sopranos (and plenty of testing high stretches for tenors as well), the remainder of the program comprised the organist’s three new compositions, all of them enjoying their first performances here. The Ave Maria setting impressed immediately for its attractive main melody; if there’s one thing you can expect from Bowman’s compositions, it is lyrical fluency and a formal shape – nothing too complex but a use of sequencing and mirrors, as where the Dominus tecum mirrored the opening. Further, the composer shows a textual sensitivity, as in his restricting the texture to female voices alone at the start to et benedictus fructus ventris tui – which is mirrored later at et in hora mortis. In sum, this piece makes a welcome entry into a pretty well-stocked field and it’s distinguished for its ease and grace.

What took me by surprise in the Regina caeli setting was Bowman’s decision to use a Slavonic scansion for the text’s plentiful use of Alleluia, which here becomes a five-syllable All-e-lu-ee-a. The text is otherwise treated as expected, with a degree of repetition that can’t be avoided, because the text is so sparse and because each of its four lines ends with the aforesaid Alleluia, even if Bowman does overdo the word at his conclusion . . . which can be excused as a reaching towards the intended ecstasy of delight in a Marian hymn that focuses so much on Christ’s mission accomplished.

Prakhoff and his forces saved their most ambitious undertaking till last with the new Pater noster. Each phrase of the prayer is repeated; none of your Gregorian get-it-over-with rapidity here. As in much serious liturgical work for instruments and voices, the work is packed with doubling, first becoming obvious in the repetitions at sicut in caelo. I liked the abrupt change straight after this congestion to voices alone at Panem nostrum, even if this second half to the prayer – when the praise is finished and the demands come piling out – sounds more tentative and worked-at than the opening strophes. But the work’s involvement level leaps up some notches with the re-entry of the instrumental forces.

Bowman goes in for another extensive musical expansion on the sed libera nos a malo segment; understandable, since this is the most important demand that the pleader makes of his creator, but such insistence causes you to wonder if the penitent is feeling sure of success or is simply hoping that repetition bolsters the chances of the requested delivery coming through. The musical content is more thick in the prayer’s second part, and this final clause lives in the memory as a prime example of this solidity. Bowman provides an emphatic and hefty Amen, confident and fortified in its language – in the best Anglican style and different from his other works on this program which, as the composer admits, reveal his affiliation with similar Marian music by Poulenc.

We hope for better days in musical performance, just as most of us are optimistic about a more relaxed life in the coming era of universal Covid vaccination. As well, I’m sure that the Melbourne Bach Choir looks for a return to normal when its members re-group at full strength; after all, there’s not only safety in numbers.

Unknown Handel, some of it

BEYOND MESSIAH

Brisbane Chamber Choir

St. John’s Anglican Cathedral

Sunday March 8, 2020

                                                                        St. John’s Anglican Cathedral

You can’t fault the idea behind this concert: to expand our experience of Handel as more than just the composer of the most famous oratorio in Western music.   You would have expected Graeme Morton‘s choir to provide the bulk of this 75-minute entertainment – and so they did with nine works, the last two of them unexpected because very popular, even if neither of them has anything to do with Messiah.   But Sunday afternoon also included two soprano arias – one of them that famous Handel hit, Let the bright Seraphim – plus an organ concerto and a concerto grosso from the famous Op. 6 set; well, not the whole of The Cuckoo and the Nightingale but just the opening Larghetto and Allegro  .  .  .  and not the complete No. 11 concerto, more’s the pity  –  only the opening Andante larghetto e staccato and its pendant Allegro.

When the choristers emerged, they reminded me in size of Melbourne’s Ensemble Gombert, a group I’ve been listening to with admiration for many years.   Like the Gomberts, the Brisbane group numbered about 19 singers – although one of the more ridiculously irritating questions of the afternoon concerned a missing singer.  Twenty were credited in the program; by my deduction, 5 sopranos and 5 altos, 6 tenors and 4 basses.   As far as I could judge, there was indeed a bass quartet, imbalanced by 7 tenors.  The sopranos numbered 4, as did the altos, although one of the altos sang that famous soprano aria but stood among the altos.

Of course, if the performance itself is engrossing, problems like this fade into the background.   The fundamental difficulty with this Handel compendium was that it was being given in the wrong building.   As cathedrals go, St. John’s is not particularly large (long) but it has a high ceiling which means that a lot of air space has to be filled.  Morton’s singers sounded much too faint and underpowered for this program and, when the parts subdivided, the output was dissipated even more than in a normal SATB setting.    Their supporting orchestra was populated mainly by Queensland Symphony Orchestra personnel: the associate concertmaster Alan Smith led a string decet in which everybody was a QSO regular except violinist Iona Allan and violist Belinda Williams who has played in past years with the orchestra.    Both oboes came from the QSO corps, and the solitary brass player, Michael Whitaker on trumpet, is a freelance musician of excellent quality.   But even this small chamber-size ensemble proved too powerful for the choir.

Of course, the building’s acoustic would be eminently suitable and flattering for a cappella singing, atmospherically suggestive to a high degree during major services and Evensong.  But it was hard weather for all concerned trying to make a fair showing of Handel’s pages, even the more harmonically bald ones.    Your voices tune that concludes the ode Alexander’s Feast opened the afternoon’s first of four sections: In Praise of Music.  Nothing here to frighten the fishes – a fair number of high As for the sopranos and a solitary B flat, but otherwise the work is not taxing.   Unfortunately, only sopranos and tenors were perceptible throughout.   Things might have been even more difficult if the two horns that are meant to join in the mesh at Let’s imitate her notes above had been present; as it was, we settled in for a lopsided sound where the cathedral’s echo distracted from the score’s rapid-moving clarity.   Still, the orchestral fabric sounded exact and engaging.

One of the program’s two Solomon extracts – the chorus Music, spread thy voice around – began without a solo alto, I believe; not that it mattered because the output in this quiet movement was reassuring with regard to the choir’s linear integrity although once again the basses failed to impress.    Soprano Cheryl Fiedler made a straightforward attempt at the famous Samson aria although her interpretation was pretty unvarnished in terms of personality, but Morton whipped through the aria without finding space for any of those pesky fermate that most singers love to interpolate.   Whitaker’s trumpet obbligato, despite the best intentions of the player, dominated the voice in duets; unfortunately, in the last echo effect sequence in the words their loud, Fiedler began with a leap of a 5th instead of a 4th – which wouldn’t have mattered except for the trumpet’s necessary duplication of what she should have sung.

You missed out on some necessary bite during the final Samson chorus, Let their celestial concerts.   Not only bite but some dynamic oomph would have been of great benefit here, although you have to wonder what the outcome would have been if the original’s second trumpet and timpani had been brought in to the complex.   After this, the movements from Handel’s A Major Concerto grosso proved an amiable interlude, well-balanced and notable for a spirited solo contribution from leader Smith.

The briefer second division of this program, In Praise of the Divine, comprised two choruses, both from Judas Maccabeus: the near-the-end Sing unto God, and the concluding Hallelujah, Amen.   Both ask for three trumpets and timpani, as well as the ever-present oboe pair.   Again, in jubilant works like these, you need a sonorous, carrying choral sound and the requisite majestic power came through only sporadically.  As well, I missed the alto and tenor soloists at the start of the first of these works.  Division Three, In Praise of Love, began with May no rash intruder (the second Solomon excerpt) which suited the muted choral output even as the sopranos were divided, although the whole could have been given appropriate colour if Handel’s two flutes had appeared.   The second aria soloist, soprano Elodie Geertsema, worked her way through Endless pleasure, endless love from Semele.   Like Fielder’s, this is a good voice best heard as a choir member rather than being asked to project an oratorio/operatic character.  The process here became something of a trial as the singer carefully negotiated the technical hurdles; an effort, not reassuringly secure.

Mourn, all ye muses from that odd masque/opera/oratorio Acis and Galatea (the heroine’s name given an odd pronunciation by the chorister who read an introduction to this segment) came across with some sensitivity to its context, although a change of texture – some crescendo/diminuendo phrasing – would have been welcome.   The split tenor line could have contributed to the textural smoothness of this small chorus.   Phillip Gearing, organist and choir director round the corner at St. Mary’s, Kangaroo Point, played half the F Major Concerto on a chamber instrument that the Brisbane Chamber Choir gifted last year to the cathedral; a handsome and suitable offering as an alternative to the building’s impressive W. J. Simon Pierce main instrument.   The smaller organ, also by Pierce, has five stops only, so Gearing was constrained in his operations.   You might have wished for maximum volume in the first movement where the soloist was not really in competition with his string escort.   Nevertheless, the work’s chirpy first Allegro succeeded markedly, the elegant passage work from the soloist a welcome pleasure.

Finally, In Praise of the Hero took to the mainstream with two choruses familiar to everybody, not just Handel lovers.    See, the conqu’ring hero comes from the oratorio Judas Maccabeus has always impressed me as the British answer to America’s Hail to the Chief, even if the brassy President’s theme song has become debased by its association with liars and charlatans.   The Handel piece opens with 2 soprano and 2 alto lines, moves to 2 sopranos before the eruption into SATB and a full orchestral accompaniment.  In Sunday’s arrangement, the hard-worked Whitaker and Gearing gave an instrumental backing before the full orchestra entered, minus Handel’s two horns.   But this was one of the program’s more successful events as the interpretation boasted some of the brio and flourish (if they’re not the same thing) of the original composition.

Sadly, the afternoon ended with the Coronation Anthem Zadok the Priest,  this reading unhappy from the outset as the orchestral ritornello was dominated by the oboes’ repeated quavers above the first violins’ scene-setting semiquaver arpeggios.   The original two bassoons were absent, as were the requisite two extra trumpets and timpani needed for the thrilling sonorous explosion when the choir enters.   But here the choral forces were not sufficiently strong in volume and forcefulness to give these all-too-well-known pages enough affirming power.  Even the tension-relieving change to 3/4 at And all the people rejoic’d sounded uninspired.  But I believe that the most taxing hurdle that the singers had to face was their sub-division into 7 lines – except for the body’s most populous entity, the tenors!

Did the exercise reveal much of the unknown Handel to us?   Well, yes and no.  We really know a good deal of the composer’s work because a large amount of it has public currency.    Both the solo arias, not just Let the bright Seraphim, are familiar; that particular organ concerto and that specific concerto grosso feature among the more frequently performed numbers in Chrysander’s catalogue; as for the Samson choruses, if you know any one of them, it’s Let their celestial concerts; Zadok and See, the conqu’ring hero are Handelian cliches.   So a touch over half of the 13 elements on this program are not in need of resuscitation; nor did they expose any unrevealed parts of the Handel canon.   Nevertheless, as a tour d’horizon where you were given a varied selection, this program fulfilled its intentions.  Both the choir and its able scratch orchestra deserve thanks, particularly for giving exposure to some relatively arcane offerings.   It’s just a pity that this event had to be relocated from its original venue  –  St. Andrew’s Uniting Church, a few doors down Ann Street  –  which might have proved a more congenial environment for this strong-boned music.

No sweat

Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Hamer Hall

Saturday July 27, 2019

                                                                  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, 2019

                                                                                 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, 2019

                                                                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 JeddaTimo-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,  2018

                                                                                    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.