A double ending


Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel

Saturday December 9

                                                                     La Compania

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Celebration of the displaced


Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel

Saturday October 28

The old order changeth – or so it seems with this excellent ensemble.  For many comfortable years  –  comfortable for us admirers  –  this choir has maintained its own timbre, such that you can usually pick the group out from the ruck: piercingly true sopranos, a steady and prominent alto line, a resonant quartet of basses, and tenors that negotiate the notes, even if diffidently.  Further, the Gomberts’ control of material extended across the centuries, well past the time of their namesake and well into the last century; John O’Donnell could take his 18 singers into any landscape and make them sound content and secure.

Much of this had to do with longevity; a solid core remained in the organization’s line-up, no matter what individuals went or returned, and this continuity of service ensured that the ensemble’s calibre of performance suffered minimally, whether a program comprised Flemish masters of the early-to-mid Renaissance or moved into the realms occupied by  contemporary static Scandinavians.  On top of this, the choir began as it continued, making no compromises for the sake of attracting a wider audience but sticking to its communal last of taking up challenges and producing readings of high musicianship without the slightest trace of populism.

This single-mindedness hasn’t changed,. evident from this most recent program given on Saturday night.  O’Donnell and his singers – the number increased slightly to 19 – worked through a focused series of works by recusant composers (well, two of them were; the other used Catholicism as the public justification for his exile) who left England for the more tolerant climate of the Netherlands and Belgium.  Mind you, two of the three composers programmed got short shrift.  O’Donnell played John Bull’s Praeludium voor Laet ons met herten reijne on a chamber organ which emphasized the piece’s progress into angularity and abruptness.  But the piece lasts only about three minutes.  Peter Philips enjoyed a longer hearing with four motets, but the recital’s main emphasis fell on works by Richard Dering – 20 of them.

Right from the opening bars of Philips’ Ave verum corpus setting, you could tell that the Gomberts’ sound had changed; in this work, the suspicion turned to certainty on the word praegustatum where the advent of at least three new sopranos – new to my experience – had altered the line’s timbre, to the point where you wondered about the possibility of someone operating slightly below the set pitch. The effect was hard to pin down because, in this piece for five voices, there are two soprano lines.  Something of the same uncertainty occurred in the following Christus resurgens where the final high notes of the sopranos’ overlapping Alleluia – Fs in my music – missed out on true congruence.

Media vita, set in a more sombre, lower tessitura, made a more favourable impression, possibly because of a calmer dynamic in operation, but the last offering from this composer, Ascendit Deus, held some more flashes of rough delivery, so that the customary smoothness and consistency of product was not sustained.

For the two brackets of Dering motets, O’Donnell accompanied the choir with the provided continuo, occasionally giving his singers a brief respite with an interlude. In the first, pre-interval group, an opening brace of O bone Jesu and O nomen Jesu made a favourable impression with several passages of quietly assertive declamation.  The sopranos didn’t pick out their opening to Jesu dulcis memoria carefully enough; the tenor lines in Quando cor nostrum sounded unusually thin, then pretty tired in the second line of Desidero te millies although the chromatic slipping at the end of that motet came across with fine accomplishment.

The composer’s works proved full of surprises in word-setting, rarely lingering over a phrase and all too happy to get past an awkwardness like incompraehensaque bonitas with some dispatch.   But even a bucketful of compositional felicities could not disguise a dominance of the choir’s texture by the top line/s with an agreable murmuring from the bass quartet but no commensurately prominent counterweight; it made you long for the presence of old-time regulars like Jerzy Kozlowski and Tim Daly.

The second group of Dering motets began with a fine reading of Anima Christi which alternated solo voices with the full choir, the sudden emergence of individuals a welcome change, although something odd happened in the final speravi in te where the combined texture appeared to undergo a dynamic gap.  The same technique worked to more confident effect in the following Vox in Rama and the women’s voices carried the burden for Dixit Agnes with as much assurance and directness of address as in years past.  A fine emotional flare informed the horticultural rhapsody of rubicunda plusquam rosa, Lilio canbdidior that concluded the deceptive Ave virgo gloriosa where the singers dipped into a sequence based on the Song of Songs.

Approaching the end, the well-exercised singers found sufficient energy to outline the suspension chain in Contristatus est Rex David where the king mourns his faithless son. But the central O sanctum signum Cruce, adoramus te in Omnem super quem returned us to the opening qualms about the upper line’s pitch, a problem that continued into the final Ave Maria.

This year is the 400th anniversary of the publication of Dering’s five-voice Cantiones sacrae and I can’t imagine that another celebration of this event would be as carefully researched and prepared as this program was.  Certainly, the night shone a battery of lights in a dark place as Dering is not a name that emerges often in Catholic choral ceremonies, although he is  –  somewhat perversely  –  not so much of a stranger in the Anglican church.

The Gomberts have cut down on their Xavier College Chapel appearances in recent times; this year, they are presenting only three nights there, and mounting more programs in the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Salon.  You can only hope that the new choir members settle more firmly into the body’s long-time high level of performance, even though the opportunities for such acclimatization in the rich Xavier acoustic are becoming more rare.



Greatest of Centuries?


Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel

Saturday April 29

Frank Martin

                    Frank Martin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


No better way to spend Good Friday


Melbourne Bach Choir and Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Friday April 14


                                                             Andrew Goodwin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



A classic up close


Ensemble Gombert

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday February 13


                                                               John O’Donnell      

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One out of three?


Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel

Saturday September 3


Ralph-Vaughan-Willia_60619a - Copy

                                                      Ralph Vaughan Williams


It’s a fraught business, picking masterpieces, and trying to do so when treating music of more recent times presents substantial difficulties.   Most of us would not argue with John O’Donnell and his Ensemble Gombert when they selected Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor as the opening to this ambitiously named concert.  The work is much loved in the English-speaking world for its serene fluency, a sort of inevitability that takes you back across centuries of self-regarding English church music to the magnificent assurance of the Tudor masters.

Expanded slightly for this occasion to twenty voices, the group produced a perfectly satisfying reading, with a splendidly full interlocking of voices at the great double-choir moments: the opening to the Gloria and its Cum Sancto Spiritu pages, both the Cujus regni and Et vitam venturi from the Creed, those seraph-suggesting Osanna antiphonal strophes, and the spacious breadth of the last page’s Dona nobis pacem pleas.  In the best British choral tradition, the four soloists proved equal to their tasks, carried out with care and no attention-grabbing quirks; the only glitch I detected came in the last exposed tenor solo of the Agnus Dei where the high G sounded strangled.

Hugo Distler’s Totentanz is an impressive construct  . . .  but a masterpiece?   It could be, but the choral components bear only part of the score’s weight.   The work is a real Dance of Death  –  a voluble character who invites a range of representative individuals to give themselves up to the inevitable.   Starting with an emperor and working through the social ranks to a new-born child,  Death orders each to join the dance, answering their pleas for mercy/understanding with an unanswerable response concerning what each of the condemned could have or should have done before facing the Judgement.

This is conducted in rhymed spoken dialogue, the source Johannes Klocking who shaped his verses for Distler’s use.   The choral contribution comprises a group of 14 Sayings, aphorisms by Angelius Silesius from his The Cherubinic Pilgrim of 1657, the ones that Distler chose all commenting on the coming interchange between Death and his newest victim.   After a fashion, these spruchen serve as off-centre chorale-preludes, proffering brief statements about the condemned one’s condition or failing(s).  The problem is that DIstler’s settings, apart from the bookends, are truly aphoristic – no sooner begun than over – which makes it hard to find a consistent field of operations from the composer.  The choral writing is challenging for its application of dissonance, but the briefness of Distler’s statements has the impact of diffusing any compositional personality.

O’Donnell had one singer reciting Death’s lines and shared the roles of bishop, physician, merchant, sailor and the rest around his singers, who coped with some stickily consonant-rich German quatrains quite well, if a few of the nouns and verbs were transmuted in the process.   Yet, at the work’s conclusion, despite the encircling and infiltrating effect of the music, the greatest impression is made by Klocking’s stanzas with their no-nonsense self-evaluations and insistence.

Petr Eben’s Horka hlina or Bitter earth is an early work from 1959-60 when the composer was 30.   It consists of a setting for baritone (not an over-taxed role), mixed choir and piano, of poems by Jaroslav Seifert, the Nobel Prize-winning Czech poet who produced these nationalistic verses in 1938 as his country faced Nazi invasion.   The imagery is emphatic and repetitious – a bayonet, a painted jug, grapes/flowers/grain/stones and pebbles – and the settings are either stentorian or folk-style sentimental.   Both outer movements – Song of the Men and Women, and Song of the Poor – have voluble piano accompaniments, here performed by O’Donnell.   Streams of powerful virtuosity introduce and sustain chorus work that is declamatory and full-blooded.  The central piece, a mainly a cappella Song of the Homeland, has a quieter ambience and more lyrical melodic content. But on one hearing – and I could find no recordings of the work – it is hard to enter into evaluative detail of worth.    A masterpiece?    I think Eben would have proposed others among his works more qualified for that title.

Nevertheless, the Gomberts’ performance of this and the Distler work, with the participants coming down from the altar to the front of the chapel pews, proved highly persuasive, particularly the ensemble’s mastery of Seifert’s texts in the original Czech.


Concordis by name . . .


Concordis Chamber Choir

Ian Roach Hall, Scotch College

Sunday May 29


This group enjoys plenty of advantages: an able and inspiring director, a generally pleasing spread of colour, plenty of fire in the belly and security in their work to go with it, an enthusiastic band of supporters, and access to a fine performance space with acoustic properties that suit the character of  a medium-sized body like this mixed choir.

As far as I can make out, Concordis is a Scotch College-inspired group.  Conductor  Andrew Hunter is a senior faculty member; accompanist Jason Ha is a distinguished old boy of the school; the two additional musicians appearing on this program also have recently graduated from the Glenferrie Road campus.  Still, this source of talent cannot account for the 18 sopranos and altos currently at work in the choir’s ranks, both lines solid contributors to the group’s distinctive sound.

And it is individual in character.  The output is assertive, each line clear and resonant; while there are clearly no shrinking violets, it’s rare that a singer breaks ranks and pushes his/her sound uncomfortably.  It did happen last Sunday afternoon, pretty obviously from an over-enthusiastic alto in the spiritual triptych that began the program’s second part where a few sforzando blasts punctuated the typically snappy Moses Hogan/Stacey Gibbs arrangements.  But moments like that were unusual and the young singers observed a discipline that made their collegial sound a pleasure to experience.

Hunter’s program ended in a wealth of Australiana, six pieces in all, while the rich world of contemporary American vocal music was represented by the previously-mentioned spirituals as well as individual pieces by Jake Runestad, Rene Clausen, Blake Henson and the trans-national Norwegian/US writer Ola Gjeilo who is clearly a Concordis favourite, three of his works punctuating the recital’s first half.  The British tradition came in for unexpectedly light treatment through two Eric Whitacre settings, Oculi omnium and Lux nova, and Philip Stopford’s pleasant if orthodox Ave verum corpus essay.  An adventurous aspect of these offerings was that the nine elements in the program’s first half were all written in this century.

In fact, I found that several of these more contemporary works showed a staid approach to choral composition.  Runestad’s I will lift mine eyes made a sterling introduction to Concordis’s work: well-ordered, full-bodied with some tellingly resonant bass singers, the approach informed by an earnest expressiveness.  These pages made for one of the best passages of play from the choir in its wide-ranging journey around the repertoire, but you looked in vain here or elsewhere in the British or American compositions for an adventurous voice.  Gjeilo’s Ubi caritas II setting plays with the original chant and Durufle’s moving arrangement but somehow misses out on breaking new ground.

Whitacre’s Oculi omnium seemed more of a challenge, particularly through the composer’s use of massed chromatic chords that demonstrated the careful preparation that Hunter and his singers had invested in a fairly challenging construct.  After the mild acerbities in this motet, Clausen’s O nata lux, the setting of two-thirds of Herrick’s To Music, to becalm his Fever by Henson, and Gjeilo’s vision of O magnum mysterium with obbligato cello all made their points pretty quickly, the last of these beginning with an interesting exercise in syllabification that dissipated into a standard setting by the text’s third line.   No fault of the executants, of course, but several later items also began with promise – like Whitacre’s Lux nova, which made an aggressive opening, only to sink into emotional soppiness at its extended ending which played with an imperfect cadence sequence under a soprano inverted pedal-note.

Gjeilo’s meditation on St. Augustine’s Watch, O Lord brought a saxophone/piano duo into play as a kind of commentary on the choral action.  This gave the instrumentalists room to improvise, a freedom of action that was undertaken cautiously by Joshua Tram’s tenor and Jason Ha’s keyboard.   Not wishing to sound too chauvinistic, I found Albury-raised Daniel Brinsmead’s version of Hildegard’s Spiritus Sanctus vivicans vita packed with incident and sparks; if not strikingly original, it showed a fine responsiveness to the visionary’s mobile text.   Later came Dan Walker’s interpretation of the first four stanzas in James McAuley’s The Blue Horses which also employed a suitably urgent vocabulary to illustrate the Australian poet’s early depiction of social restlessness.  Concordis made a fine case for this unsettling work, the sopranos and tenors in particular lending a brand of benign urgency to Walker’s multi-faceted choral tapestry.

A menu of eighteen numbers is lavish, certainly, and the Concordis choir worked with no little expertise through this program.  Nevertheless, many of these scores seemed interchangeable – not surprisingly, given the provenance of the US and British works.  The choir is fortunate in its members and their consistency; only a few signs of wavering pitch outweighed by the singers’ laudable attention to Hunter’s gestures.  This young group’s professionalism might be increased if it put a stop to the inane practice by some audience members of taking photos mid-performance; I don’t know of any other choir which allows this, not even when done by the most doting of parents or relatives, let alone the unstoppable manic maenads who marred this particular presentation.


A massive music


Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel

Saturday April 30

Ensemble Gombert
Ensemble Gombert

Holding back nothing at the start of their annual subscription series, John O’Donnell and the Ensemble Gombert presented an impressive night’s work on Saturday, filled with music from composers for the Flemish Chapel, that central religious music body associated with the Holy Roman Emperors.   Pierre de la Rue, Brumel and the ensemble’s namesake are familiar quantities to most lovers of Renaissance activity; Noel Bauldeweyn and Thomas Crecquillon, not so much; for this program, the latter provided two motets that shamelessly flattered (or did they?) Emperor Charles V, while Bauldeweyn contributed a motet on which Gombert wrote the mass that gave this recital its spine.

It is a mighty work, the Missa Quam Pulchra es; so much so that O’Donnell served it up in discrete sections, with interpolations from those other Franco-Flemish composers mentioned above.   A fine initiative, as far as it went; the trouble here was that some of these interstitial pieces were not small passages of relief but considerable constructs, like the Brumel Laudate Dominum in caelis amalgam of Psalms 148 and 150 that proved just as substantial as parts of the Gombert mass, with the added quality of a text crying out for hyperbole, insofar as that existed among these composers.

De la Rue’s Magnificat octavi toni made an expansive initial gambit, alternating four-part polyphony with plainchant and distinguished by its unexpected musings on certain phrases in the central verses Fecit potentiam in brachio suo, and, further on, the dispersit superbos mente cordis sui observation.  But the impression at the end was of continuous variety, two-part settings with over-lapping entries set against bursts of full choral texture.  This bounding around also gave the venerable text a welcome gaiety, mirroring the Virgin’s delight in her treatment.

Bauldeweyn’s motet, its inspiration taken from the Song of Songs, made the mildest of introductions to the mass, an upward step pattern of a 4th providing a jumping-off stone for nearly all Gombert’s Ordinary settings; nothing particularly striking to be found, either, in later phrases but all clear grist to an inventive mind on the lookout for a cantus firmus or three.  In the Kyrie, apart from the rich complex of six interweaving and contrasting lines, the only oddity came in an unexpected upward inflexion at the end of the Christe eleison.

But the Gloria was a whole new matter.  Gombert massed his forces and kept up the pressure in a welter throughout the first half, up to that traditional hiatus point before the Qui tollis change of purpose from incessant apostrophes of praise to pleading for redemption.   At the start of the extolling sequence – Laudamus te. Benedicimus te. Adoramus te. Glorificamus te. – the strong suggestion was of bell-like vocal cannonades, constant and even in a seamless paean.   This was followed by a full-bodied sequence of apostrophes as the choir asserted the divine attributes, from Domine Deus through to Filius Patris.  The less sympathetic could see this as pounding away at doubt or scepticism through a technique of musical bludgeoning that admits of no argument, a less sympathetic anti-Reformation response than Palestrina’s, for example.  But the effect from these singers was close to overwhelming, splendidly assured and confident.

A similar feat occurred in the Credo which spread its affirmations in one chain from the opening bold declaration to the assertion of God made man.  After the block assault thus far, the Crucifixus and its consequents provided a relief in tension through more obviously varied textural oppositions but the movement reached its uplifting climax in the Confiteor section, a ferment of linear and metrical action.  Still, it seemed to me that the finest singing came in the Sanctus/Benedictus, particularly in a mellifluous delineation of the Pleni sunt caeli segment where the Gomberts’ balance and clarity of output impressed most fully.

Both Crecquillon motets praising his emperor were given a steady, martial interpretation, Carole magnus erat enjoying a striking soprano kick-off, its directness of speech a contrast to the preceding formidable Gloria, as was its sober ending where the poet and composer collaborate to celebrate the good intentions of the emperor, truly pious rather than obsessed by his own glory.   A theme that returned in Quis te victoriam dicat? where the march-like metre celebrates the royal figure’s victory over his enemies but, more to the point, over himself – a message that was reinforced two-and-a-half times with determined grace by this hard-worked but rarely faltering body of singers.

For this occasion, the Gombert personnel numbers were slightly greater than usual with an extra alto and another tenor while regular Peter Campbell paid a peripatetic visit to the altos every once in a  while.   Still, for those of us who were there, the Ensemble demonstrated yet again why its reputation as the city’s indubitable experts in Renaissance choral music is unchallenged.



A triumph for magniloquence


Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel

December 5, 2015

Ensemble Gombert (image: ensemblegombert.com.au)
Ensemble Gombert (image: ensemblegombert.com.au)

Melbourne’s finest choral force had a pretty easy time at its last concert for 2015, a by-now traditional event that can take in music dealing with the Christmas Night event as well as its Gospel postludes up to the Feast of the Purification and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.  On Saturday, the Gombert singers collaborated with some of Danny Lucin’s early music experts from La Compania: a sextet of cornett, sackbuts and three strings supplementing John O’Donnell who directed each segment from a chamber organ.

Central to the program, Schutz’s Weinachtshistorie prefigures later settings of the Nativity story, the most famous being Bach’s wide-ranging Christmas Oratorio.  But where the later composer deviates from the New Testament text to interpolate introductory choruses, a sinfonia, many arias, chorales, a duet or two, some ariosi, even a trio, Schutz sticks to his last and simply tells the story as set down in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.   Most of this task falls to an Evangelist who occupies centre-stage for much of the piece’s length, following a rather strict one-note-one-syllable recitative path with – as far as I could hear – only a couple of fanciful flights – on the word entfloh suggesting the flight to Egypt, and a final flourish at the close of the Evangelist’s contributions where he observes God’s grace in the growing child Jesus.

The full Gombert complement contributed to the work with the solid opening which promises at some length that what follows is concerned with Christ’s birth, and with the conclusion, a hymn of thanks praising God at some length.  The 18 singers also contributed to the 6-part Gloria exclamation from the angels praising God to the shepherds; this is one of eight intermedia where the text is given personalisation – the solitary angel of Katharina Hochheiser addressing the shepherds, later prompting Joseph to exile in Egypt, then ordering him home; an alto/tenor sextet for the shepherds’ response, a tenor trio for the Wise Men questioning the Child’s whereabouts, all four Gombert basses representing the priests and scribes, Michael Strasser’s solo bass for Herod.

Vaughan McAlley’s tenor was not over-pressed by the Evangelist’s line, which is easy-going compared to the same role in the Christmas Oratorio, not to mention the St. Matthew Passion marathon which McAlley has sung with other groups.  His voice is clear, the notes accurately centred, but the actual timbre, the vocal quality lacks assurance and comes across as studied; not tentative, as the singer knows the task in hand, yet lacking that fluency which urges the narrative forward.  Hochheiser’s first angelic address made a positive impact of agility, but for a fair while I could not distinguish any specific word: fricatives, plosives, consonants of any kind were absent from the vocal output which had only two Baroque violins vying for attention.   Better followed with the semi-recitative encouragements to Joseph and a less aggressive string support.

Still, the impression of Schutz’s score in this reading was of an often dour construct, lightened by the choral bracketing.  La Compania contributed with a flawless sonic mix that could have been amplified to the fabric’s benefit, particularly with some woodwind colour like recorders or a buzzing dulcian or two.

In the night’s second part, the ensemble sang three Michael Praetorius motets: the rarely-heard Jesaia dem Propheten das geschah, and two more familiar workings of well-known melodies in the double-choir Von Himmel hoch da komm ich her and the impressive 9-part Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern.   Full fruits of the Venetian school and the Gabrielis’ influence, these sumptuous complexes brought a seasonal richness to the Gomberts’ celebration, balancing the spartan directness of Schutz’s bare-bones narrative with its very welcome interpolations.  Despite the body’s modest numbers, O’Donnell’s ensemble handles these grand soundscapes with more elegance and clarity than most other bodies with many times the number of participants.

O’Donnell introduced the two final anthems with a Pachelbel chorale-prelude for Von Himmel hoch and a solid Buxtehude chorale fantasia on Wir schon leuchtet; both tests of digital exactness and linear distinction.  For this music, you could not hope for a more informed and able executant.

Post-concert, the night took a turn for the bizarre when the audience found that Xavier’s security operations – with both the Ensemble Gombert and the Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra at work in the grounds – had closed off the gates.  It’s one way to treat your guests, I suppose, but suggests an unnerving lack of consideration for others that stands clearly in opposition to the college’s self-proclaimed aim of producing career altruists.



Bach celebrates the Reformation


St John’s Bach Orchestra and Choir

Graham Lieschke conductor

St. John’s Lutheran Church, Southbank

October 25

In two years, the Reformation’s central act – Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Schlosskirche  – will be 500 years old, and it’s not stretching possibilities to foresee that Bach’s cantatas will form a significant part of those celebrations.

At this city’s most prominent Lutheran church, Graham Lieschke continues to promote and oversee regular performances of these musical statements of faith.  For today – Reformation Sunday – he presented No. 80 which uses Luther’s most famous hymn as its basis: a familiar tune that Bach transforms immediately into a polyphonic marvel as the opening chorus piles vocal and instrumental lines on each other, the composer testifying to his faith with a skill of construction and emotional enthusiasm that sweeps away all doubt.

St. John’s, Soutgate (Image: yarrariver.info)

At Southgate, these cantatas are inserted into the regular Sunday liturgy, a constant framework into which Bach inserted his own musical sermons.   In these more theologically relaxed times, the interposed cantata brings an extraordinary focus to the day’s liturgical observations, as well as to the readings and gospel which set the service’s tenor.  This morning’s cantata content spoke clearly to the concept of the spiritual war between God and the Devil expressed in military metaphors of bulwarks, fortresses, flags, battlefields, armaments, freedom and victory.

The St. John’s Choir gave a fair account of the opening movement, if inclined to be swamped by the ornate orchestration for oboe and trumpet trios, timpani, a bustling string body, and organ and harpsichord enjoying separate parts.  Singer numbers seem to have shrunk over the past few years and – as with most local bodies – the tenors sounded faint, especially in this initial complex.  But the later chorale verses  came across with  more aggression and verve.

A few bleeps from the period trumpets emerged in the work’s finale, although the lines are taxingly positioned.  Both oboists Kailen Cresp and Andrew Angus enjoyed more success with their solo contributions and the string corps show competence but a surprising lack of bounce, generating the work’s supporting weave but leaving it dynamically inert.

As usual, Lieschke benefited from a quartet of able young soloists.  Soprano Caitlin Vincent owns a clear-speaking instrument, even across its range for her counter-melody in  bass Jeremy Kleeman’s Alles, was von Gott geboren  aria. and her own very exposed Komm in mein Herzenshaus solo.  Kleeman made the most of an extended, ardent recitative but the morning’s most effective solo work came from alto Maximilian Riebl and tenor Jacob Lawrence in the cantata’s penultimate duet Wie selig sind doch die: mutually considerate, well balanced in vocal timbre, accurate in rhythmic definition and pitching.

The St. John’s  series continues on Sunday November 29, the run-up to Christmas being marked with Schwingt freudig euch empor, Cantata No. 36, written to celebrate the start of Advent in 1731 and hymning Bach’s great faith with impregnable certainty and infectious joy.