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.