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Ensemble Gombert: Music of the Sistine Chapel

by John Weretka

Ensemble Gombert got its two-concert contribution to the Local Heroes recitals at the Melbourne Recital Centre underway on Tuesday evening with an exploration of the music of the Sistine Chapel. The hour-long program trod a sensible path between the well known and the not so well known, and ranged from the last few decades of the fifteenth century until almost the end of the sixteenth century.

The biggest section of the program was reserved for Palestrina’s perennially popular Missa Papae Marcelli, its inclusion a wise move; the first half of the program was dedicated to five smaller works — three by Josquin and two by Morales. Two of the Josquin works (the epochal Ave Maria à 4 and the less frequently performed but magnificent Inviolata à 5) formed good, solid introductions to the style of the composer. Morales, perhaps the most significant composer in the chapel in the first decades of the sixteenth century, was represented by the Magnificat primi toni, a reasonably standard, workmanlike setting of the Marian canticle, and the excellent Tu es Petrus, one of several works Morales wrote with an ostinato motto.

In short, this was a very well conceived program, even if it fell into what is a persistent configuration for Ensemble Gombert, that of the Mass-and-motets program.

The performance itself, however, was less interesting. There is no doubting that Ensemble Gombert knows its stuff from the perspective of being deeply immersed in the idiom of Franco-Flemish polyphony, particularly of the first three quarters of the sixteenth century: the group has a reasonably stable core membership, some of it of very long standing, that guarantees this. And, in a general sense, the singing qua singing is capable enough — generally rhythmically precise and generally in tune, although signs of tiredness had set in about three-quarters of the way through the concert, leading on at least one occasion to a concluding chord that resolutely would not come into tune. Director John O’Donnell’s willingness to continue to bring this music before the public is also unimpeachably admirable.

I can’t tell, however, whether this very familiarity with the idiom has led the Ensemble simply into being unenthusiastic advocates of the music they sing. The Ensemble gave no real sense of passionate involvement with the music: very few members ever look up, either at the director or the audience, and the impression they leave is often one of just reading musical texts rather than narrating their rhetoric or laying bare their significance.

Powerful moments of rhetoric (such as in the tertia pars of Josquin’s Inviolata) or of the control of mass (basically the raison d’être of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, given its extremely zealous commitment to a certain type of word setting) are just passed by without remark; there was almost no dynamic variation through the entire hour’s music; reasonably little intra-ensemble communication; slight attempt at shapely and characteristic manipulation of phrases; little investigation of the choral sound palette through concentration on vowel colouration or the power of consonants in rhythmic profiling.

There were occasional flashes, particularly in the Amen of the Credo of the Missa Papae Marcelli, when a sense of the epic sweep of Palestrina’s paragraphs became evident through phrase, mass, dynamic and — frankly — vocal engagement. But these moments were all too infrequent. It might be objected that historical performance style of the period of the music called for precisely this kind of approach (and I am not sure it did), but the Ensemble needs to recommit to today’s audience — not an imagined audience now half a millennium gone.

Ensemble Gombert appears next in October in what looks to be a fascinating programme of Byrd and his predecessors in the context of the Chapel Royal.



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