As the musical world cancelled or postponed hundreds of 250th birthday celebrations for one of the most influential composers that ever lived, Australian Chamber Choir musical director, Douglas Lawrence, made sure we would not miss hearing some of Beethoven’s rarely heard vocal compositions in this year’s first public performance by the ACC 8.
A few of Beethoven’s real and imaginary friends were also invited to share the program, composers who would “cheerfully drink a toast of sweet wine to the external brotherhood of friendship” as extolled in the lyrics of the opening work, surprisingly, Beethoven’s Farewell Song. This gentle, very beautiful opener was a fine salute to the Germanic chorale tradition, introducing the warm and blended vocal timbres of ACC8 male voices. Frequently paired with his complementary Song of The Monks, Beethoven’s second work was stronger, darker and more profound, asking for a more dramatic and declamatory power in tone and stern lyrics: “Quickly comes man’s death. He is given no reprieve”. Completing this trilogy of sorrowful songs, the rarely performed Elegy Op 118 added the female voices to a hushed atmosphere of spiritual loss and reflection: “Life gently touched thee, and passed as softly”. The smoothest pulse and rhythmic flow developed more as harmonies and timbres broadened across a wider vocal range with rising soprano lines adding colour, affirmation of life and acceptance of the inevitable homeward journey. In this arrangement Elizabeth Anderson allocated string quartet parts to the voices, effectively tailoring Beethoven’s piece to the strengths of this ensemble.
Beethoven certainly admired and studied the rich harmonies of J.S.Bach, so the inclusion of An Wasserflussen Babylon in this reflective program was a meaningful choice. “By the waters of Babylon we sat down in pain … there we cried from our hearts”, solemn and dignified, the texts were delivered with the clearest of diction, the music delivered with flowing hymn-like qualities, sopranos leading and soaring above well-balanced harmonies.
Australian composer and writer Gordon Kerry was present for this performance of his composition Seven Last Words, a complex piece where elements of medieval rhythms and motifs, plainchant and simple counterpoint added textural variety. In the resonant acoustic of this domed church, ACC8 excelled in producing a gorgeous tonal aura, strong resonance in unison passages, and a fascinating crystal clear and bell like tone with precise punctuations and flexions in abrupt changing dynamics. Final solemn and darker tones were voiced effectively when the composer asked for an almost motionless, sleep inducing hint of lifelessness and sorrow, a contrast to the expression of pain and suffering in earlier rising chromatic motives.
First performed in 1942, the anthem Valiant For Truth is seen to be Vaughan Williams’ response to the death of his close friend, Dorothy Longman, in a setting of a notable speech from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. In a solemn quasi-religious setting, the imminent Mr Valiant-For-Truth recognised that he was being called to meet his Father, but without humility maintains his pride and authority as “all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side”. Tenor voices were featured in effective detailed dynamics and energetic counterpoint, as the work ended with rousing harmonic authority and imitative brassy vocal colours.
Would Beethoven have invited more anguish and pain into his life with Poulenc bringing sorrowful Latin texts to his birthday party? Four Motets for a Time of Penitence brought new tonalities, dissonance and awe to the Easter Passion.
Timor et tremor, like a solemn chorale, brought suggestions of pain and suffering in rising chromaticism and atonal steps. A descending glissando from soprano Elspeth Bawden was felt as an intense sigh, a cry of anguish. Vinea mea electa offered more calming, brooding tonal chords, but colder bare intervals and more modern fractured patterns exposed some bitter flavours. In Tenebrae factae sunt thelow male voices underpinned slow rhythms with sustained drone-like pitches, augmented intervals and descending short steps into darkness and sorrow. A final hushed unison note revered the text “Father into thy hands I commend my spirit” with much feeling. Tristis est anima mea opened with a free, almost improvisatory and ethereal solo soprano line (Elspeth Bawden) leading into the most challenging and difficult motet, where voice entries projected search for hope and meaning among dissonance and final resignation.
Beethoven, the entertainer, would have the final say with his musical jokes and teasing of his friends. He wrote Five Canons playing on the names and characteristics of his friends, each one sung by ACC8 with varied vocal groupings. Happy New Year for female quartet was a most playful and staccato piece. Hoffman and Tobias for male duo were two amusing, light and playful caricatures. Kuhl Nicht Lau brought his friend and composer Kuhlau into the party. Maizel with its “ta ta ta, great metronome” vocal imitations, was most fun and the audience’s favourite. An encore had to keep the celebrations going. Elizabeth Anderson’s creative flair and talent for writing unique vocal arrangements for the ACC was highly applauded with an uplifting setting of Ode to Joy. 2020 saw the ACC continue regular newsletters, videos, livestreamed concerts, the release of a CD, always with highly scholarly programme notes, and today they delivered yet another memorable concert.
WATCH ON DEMAND: www.auschoir.org/Ludwig-van
Julie McErlain reviewed “Ludwig van we missed your birthday!”, performed by the Australian Chamber Choir – ACC8 at Our Lady of Mt Carmel Church, Middle Park on March 21, 2021.