One out of three?

THREE TWENTIETH-CENTURY MASTERPIECES

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 . . .

SERENITY

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

MUSIC OF THE CAPILLA FLAMENCA

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

CHRISTMAS TO CANDLEMAS: SCHUTZ AND PRAETORIUS

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

EIN FESTE BURG     ***

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.