Making their very welcome return to Melbourne since the pandemic made interstate travel and large-scale concerts near impossible, the Sydney-based Australian Brandenburg Choir and Orchestra made a triumphant return to the Melbourne Recital Centre Stage in a French inspired program entitled Paradisum.
The concert began with a few words from ABO co-founder, Artistic Director and conductor Paul Dyer AO, who shared with the audience a few of his early childhood experiences which indirectly had inspired this carefully curated program. Firstly, he recalled performing the Fauré Requiem as a treble, aged just 11, and then recounted a visit to Paris he made as a 12-year-old, and his first visit to the famous L’église de la Madeleine, and the impression it made on him. It is worth noting that the much-revered Italian-born, French-adopted composer Jean Baptiste Lully was just 14 when he was chosen to be an Italian tutor for a cousin of Louis XIV and moved to Paris. A powerful reminder of the importance of exposing young people to high quality musical opportunities and the importance of travel.
With his customary flair for detail, Dyer began proceedings with a poignant and silent reminder of the pandemic-induced hiatus in ABO’s touring program. On a dimly lit recital centre stage, with only the gilded harpsichord illuminated, Dyer took a score, stepped into the light, and theatrically blew dust from it before a note was heard. The gesture was not lost on the audience, only too aware of the “long time between drinks” it has been for so many of our nation’s performing artists during the last two years.
The first half of this concert featured Musique de la Reine (The Queen’s Music), a “Pasticcio” created by Dyer based on a series of shorter works by composers who all wrote for the French Court at various times. Beginning with Dyer seated at the harpsichord, we heard Quand le flambeau du monde quitte l’autre séjour, a court song by Charles Tessier, a lutenist in the court of Henri IV. Appearing in semi-darkness, with carefully designed lighting recreating the candle-lit atmosphere of the past, the “dust” having turned into a cloud of incense floating above, a consort of five voices and a small band of Baroque strings and percussion entered the stage in pairs, creating a dignified air of solemnity to the musical “ceremony” that was to follow. Sopranos Astrid Girdis and Elise Morton, joined by counter-tenor Michael Burden, tenor William Varga and bass Aidan O’Donnell made for an impressive consort indeed, notable for their well-blended sound and excellent intonation and diction which was sensitively supported by the consort featuring Dyer’s harpsichord and the dual theorbos of Tommie Anderson and Nicholas Pollock.
Without pause, and with subtle lighting and careful choreography returning the focus to the harpsichord as the other performers moved out of the spotlight, we were treated to Dyer’s performance of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Le Rappel des Oiseaux (The Waking Call of the Birds) taken from the Suite in E minor for Harpsichord, published in Paris in 1724. Providing a musical link to the next item, it also provided Dyer with a chance to share his obvious joy for this repertoire, with a chirpy and filigree performance referencing the beauty of nature’s own music. This was immediately followed by another “air de cour” from the Ballet de la Reine (Queen’s Ballet) of 1619 by Antoine Boësset, Nos esprits libres et contents (Our minds free and glad).An elegant, stately, yet fairly solemn work for four voices and instruments, the outstanding blend and balance of the Brandenburg’s vocal consort was again evident, with Aidan O’Donnell’s attractive bass voice providing a solid foundation for the other singers, and the light unforced tenor of William Varga balancing nicely with the well-rounded timbre of alto Michael Burden.
Marin Marais’ Prélude en harpeggement, No. 46 from Suite No. 3 in F major, Livre Vfollowed, providing accomplished Viola da Gamba player Anthea Cottee with a rare moment in the spotlight as a soloist, utilising the superb acoustics of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall to highlight the beauty of this magnificent six-stringed baroque instrument. A mainstay of baroque orchestras as a consort and continuo instrument, it was a treat to hear the ’gamba played here as a solo instrument in all its glory.
Nicolas Chédeville lived from 1705 – 1782 and was particularly sought-after as a musette teacher by members of the French aristocracy, and one of his students was Princess Victoire, daughter of King Louis XV. In this program his contribution to Dyer’s pasticcio was a largo taken from his Sonata in G minor, Op. 13 No. 6. This was swiftly followed a lively Allegro movement by Jean-Baptiste Quentin from the Sonata in A minor, Op. 15 No. 3. A contemporary of Rameau and Marais, Quentin was a much-loved composer of court music in his day, and this spirited Allegro was originally the first movement of a sonata for flute, violin viola da gamba and harpsichord.
Throughout the entire program, the consort of Brandenburg strings (led by the duelling baroque violins of Shaun Lee-Chen and Ben Dollman, and supported by Monique O’Deal on baroque viola and Anthea Cottee on viola da gamba) played with impressive energy and rhythmic precision. Providing colour and contrast was the inclusion of Brian Nixon’s subtle percussion at various points in the program, and the theorbos and baroque guitars of Tommie Andersson and Nicholas Pollock, together with Dyer’s harpsichord, made for a fabulous array of instrumental colours and ever-changing musical textures.
Borrowing from the late Renaissance, Dyer included the 1570 chanson J’ayme trop mieux souffrir la mort (I much prefer to suffer death) by Guillaume Costeley – the earliest composer represented in this concert. From 1560 he was composer in the court of French King Charles IX.
Bringing this elegantly curated pasticcio to a close was Boësset’s À la fin cette bergère – another air de cour, but unlike the more sedate examples heard earlier, this one was semi-staged and featured a musical soundscape which was full of fire. A lover is gloating: his shepherdess Phyllis, once aloof, is now caught under the same spell as he. “We live beneath the same law, since I hold her mine.” Again the consort of voices displayed an exemplary blend and balance, but in this piece they were also able to show a little more personality. There was an impressive swagger to Aidan O’Donnell’s bass (complete with jacket casually draped over his shoulder), and I was constantly drawn to the expressive qualities of alto Michael Burden’s performance, always emotionally responsive to the text and engaged with his fellow performers. Soprano Astrid Girdis presented herself lying casually across a few chairs at the front of the stag – reinforcing the nonchalant, almost seductive character of this music.
After waiting patiently to show their appreciation, the spectacular combination of voices and instruments in this piece brought premature applause from the audience, but it was cut short by the baroque guitar of Nicholas Pollock and percussion of Brian Nixon, which announced one final instrumental item – Lully’s Marche pour la Cérémonie des Turcs from Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, LWV 43 – a ballet play which satirises attempts at social climbing and the bourgeois personality, poking fun both at the vulgar, pretentious middle-class and the vain, snobbish aristocracy in baroque France. This March, which begins a Turkish “ceremony” in the play, provided Dyer and his band of merry minstrels one last chance to share their musical joy with the audience and deliver a rousing “baroque jam session” to bring the first half to a rollicking conclusion, the inclusion of bass drum and tambourine adding an exotic touch.
Paul Dyer constantly infuses his performances with an infectious joie de vivre, which carries his musicians and audience along with an engaging energy and enthusiasm. This pasticcio, though often understated and almost verging on sombre at times, was still infused with satisfying joy which obviously pleased the audience, who headed to the interval with a spring in their step and a newfound appreciation of music of the French Court.
After the interval we moved forward in time, to the late nineteenth century. Perhaps one the most cherished of all sacred choral works, Fauré’s famous Requiem Op. 48 was composed between 1887 and 1890. In this performance we heard the charming 1889 version for chamber orchestra.
The choral-orchestral setting of the shortened Catholic Mass for the Dead (in Latin) is the best-known of his large works and is now entrenched as one of the most popular of all Requiem settings – a reminder of what a tragedy it is that Faure wrote so few extended works. Composed in seven movements, Requiem is scored for soprano and baritone soloists, mixed choir, orchestra and organ. Different from many other Requiem settings, the full sequence of the Dies irae is omitted, replaced by a Pie Jesu. The final movement In Paradisum is based on a text that is not part of the liturgy of the funeral Mass, but of the burial.
Fauré saw death as a “happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience” and said of his Requiem, “Everything I managed to entertain by way of religious illusion I put into my Requiem, which moreover is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest.”
As a composer, Fauré is justifiably regarded as one of the masters of the French art song, or mélodie, and the charm of his Requiem is the way he infuses the text with such beautiful and often gentle melodic material, leading to it sometimes being described as “a lullaby of death” because of its predominantly gentle character.
The forces employed in this performance were very close to those of the 1889 version. Fauré called upon a choir about forty in number consisting of boys and men (the Madeleine did not admit female choristers at the time), a solo boy treble (here replaced with the now familiar adult soprano soloist), harp, timpani, organ, and strings (solo violin, divided violas, divided cellos and basses). For a performance at the Madeleine in May 1888 Fauré had added horn and trumpet parts, and these were also incorporated, and also included in this performance.
Conducting his combined forces, Dyer’s wide gestures invited a spacious and unhurried account of the opening movement, creating significant demands on his singers. Despite a slight pitch slip from the upper voices very early on in the first movement, the choir generally performed with distinction and delivered a polished and memorable performance.
A feature throughout was the pleasing timbre of the Brandenburg Choir’s tenor and (male) alto sections, which, coupled with a crystalline soprano line made for many heavenly moments, particularly in the softer passages.
The body of strings responded to Dyer’s sense of urgency at the start of the Offertoire led by the violas, who produced a rich, almost romantic sound when needed. In this movement the quality of the lower voices in the choir also became evident, with an unusual clarity and beauty of tone demonstrated by both the alto and bass sections of the choir, particularly in the two “O Domine” sections of this movement. The generous acoustic particularly lends itself to singers, enabling plenty of space and feedback on stage, without ever leading to distortion or lack of clarity for the audience. Choirs don’t have to work hard to be heard here, and pianissimo singing is rewarded with no loss of diction.
Emerging from the choir to sing the familiar Baritone solos was Hayden Barrington, who delivered a polished and handsome reading of both the Hostias and Libera me sections. His light baritone voice was certainly more present in the upper register where he sang with beautiful ringing tone and effortless control, but perhaps at times lacked a little power in the lowest passages. He was supported by some lovely period horn playing from Michael Dixon and Graham Nichols, who both added both power and drama in the brief moments of the Dies Irae.
Soaring above the angelic sopranos in the Sanctus was Shaun Lee Chen’s violin solo. A moment of sublime beauty when played with such attention to intonation and phrasing. There was a lovely balance between sopranos and baritones in this movement too, the latter singing with warmth and impressive control, never overpowering their musical colleagues. Perhaps more than any other movement, the Sanctus demonstrates the ethereal qualities that have led some to describe Fauré’s Requiem as a “lullaby of death”.
Originally written for a boy soprano, the famous Pie Jesu provides another moment of striking contrast in this Requiem setting, Fauré’s delicate orchestration enabling it to be performed by a lighter voice than may be expected in many works of this period. Appearing in white, and illuminated at the front of the stage, Brandenburg soprano Bonnie de la Hunty was an ideal soloist for the Pie Jesu. Radiant, both visually and musically, Hunty projected a clarion tone, coupled with secure intonation, a pleasing warmth in her lower register and well-controlled phrasing. The delicate balance of the Klop Chamber Organ, strings and harp provided an ideal level of accompaniment and never dominated.
Whilst it is commonly expected that a larger organ is required for this work, the beauty of the chamber version and its smaller forces is that a smaller instrument can be used effectively. In this instance, the playing of organist Heidi Jones on the sweet sounding Klop chamber organ within the ensemble made for a homogenous and balanced sound without overpowering the small string orchestra or the choir, yet provided just enough power in the more dramatic moments of the score. This was particularly evident in the Agnus Dei and Libera me, where the natural power of the choir was able to create the necessary gravitas rather than relying on the organ (which is so often too powerful for the rest of the ensemble when played on a romantic sized instrument).
Indeed, despite all their hushed and reverential singing in the quieter passages, Dyer was still able to elicit some impressive power from his Brandenburg Choir in the Requiem’s more dramatic moments. It was an impressive body of sound, with the baritones and basses in particular providing a real strength and glorious tone when called upon by their conductor. Responding to his outstretched arms, which were begging for a passionate response, they always delivered.
Only a matter of hours before the start of this concert, bombs had started falling on Ukraine, and the world watched in disbelief as war once again descended on Europe. For just a short time, all those of us present at this concert were taken to another (better) place, and as the mellifluous sopranos of the wonderful Brandenburg Choir sang Fauré’s In Paradisum, with the solo violin heard soaring high above, we were all momentarily transported to Paradise.
This concert will be repeated on Saturday 26 February at 7:00 PM, and again on Sunday 27 February at 5:00 PM.
Photo credit: Keith Saunders
Andrew Wailes reviewed “Paradisum”, performed by the Australian Brandenburg Choir and Orchestra at the Melbourne Recital Centre on February 24, 2022.
Andrew Wailes is well known to Melbourne audiences as Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, and as a freelance conductor and chorusmaster of various choral and orchestral ensembles in Melbourne, and around Australia. He regularly appears with local groups including Melbourne University Choral Society, Box Hill Chorale, and is currently preparing a new professional children’s chorus in Melbourne for Opera Australia.