We have come to expect nothing short of perfection from Douglas Lawrence and the Australian Chamber Choir, who invite us to simply “savour the sound” of “pure voices, perfectly blended” and who consistently present the magnificent choral music as a wonderful Christmas gift. Just reading the (24 page) program for this concert season was a Christmas Feast of its own kind, with Lawrence generously providing fabulous historical research and informative descriptions of the works which he then programmed into a perfect concert order, sensitively enhancing the musical and dramatic results for the audience.
Possibly Hammerschmidt’s most popular composition, Halleluja, Freut Euch IhrChristen Alle (1646), was a splendid opening, with spirited rejoicing, balanced variation between the changing triple and duple meters, and an engaging structure of alternating men’s voices with the full chorus in the Reprise – Freude Freude – being melodically colourful, flowing and almost “catchy”. Gabrieli’s motet, O Magnum Mysterium, drew us into a more prayerful, religious sense of solemnity and awe, and was sung with gentle elegance and strength with the Latin text expressing the humility and awe of the lowliness of Christ’s birth. The ensemble became delightfully forthright with the contrasting Alleluia and final cadence.In this work I was struck by the singers’ ability to show their control with the almost imperceptible fading of the final notes of each vocal line as new voices entered with new prominence. Subtle, balanced and reflective of Gabriel’s style, this performance was an ideal contrast to the opening work.
From that mood of reverence, the next work was again perfectly programmed with a change of scene. Praetorius’ interesting, short, light-hearted piece Sund Und Kling (Sing and Ring), with its German text for the verse and Latin text for the refrain, was a delightful airy, rhythmic and uncomplicated sacred carol. The ACC did indeed project a playful ringing in the text, with the acoustic of St Mary’s enhancing the sopranos’ upper tones.
Some composers gain a reputation for achieving greatness in huge works, as later in this program one of Bach’s great motets would demonstrate. But first, his chorale O Jesulein Suss (O Sweet Little Jesus) was a true small gem of perfection with its melodic and gentle setting of a simple but spiritual text – “O little one sweet, o little one mild”. Featuring soprano soloist Elspeth Bawden, the gently rocking triple meter effectively lulled us with its beauty and feminine touch, supported by firm movement and gentle balance in the moving bass parts.
The beauty continued, but giving us the more dramatic structure of Ein Kind Geborn Zu Bethlehem, (A Child Born In Bethlehem), with its alternating verses for full ensemble (setting by Gesius) with either male or female voices ( setting by Praetorius) which came with solemn chorale harmonisation in the Lutheran hymn style, then lighter and dance-like with the rejoicing “Hallelujahs.”
The motet Das Wort Ward Fleisch (The Word Made Flesh), one of Schutz’ twenty-nine motets, is scored for nine voices, but is equally imperious when performed with instruments. From the earthy D minor beginning there is much suspension and shifting groupings of voices which build to a forceful climax with a triumphant D major chord. Quite wonderfully, I felt as if all bar-lines on the score had been removed, as Lawrence allowed the beauty of the text and tone to flow and expand, allowing pure vocal work to be free of a driving metre or pulse. Rarely do choirs achieve this freedom.
Lawrence then programmed what could have been a trio of lighter texts of festive praise. With Bach’s motet Lobet den Herren (Praise the Lord),the ensemble was able to demonstrate its technical mastery of complex contrapuntal work, sustaining impressive dynamics and a mastery of the Baroque style, with the basses revealing rich and healthy resonance in descending lines. A light and lively pulse punctuated the choir’s expression of joyful praise, and Eccard’s Resonet In Laudibus (Let the voice of praise resound) unified the ensemble in graceful rocking triple meter.
Sweelinck’s Hodie allowed the ACC’s skills to flourish in joyful lines, lively canons, and confident overlapping of parts. In this Hodie, the sopranos set the bells ringing. The final voices echoed and overlapped each other in excited calls of “Noel”, ending the first part of the program with a vibrant “Alleluia!” – which happened also to be the very first word of today’s texts.
The program continued with more splendid Baroque works, with the 16thC VonHimmel Hoch (From Heaven High) offering a melody attributed to Luther, but this setting allowing the ACC lower voices to have prominence and movement, actively supporting the solid upper harmony. Further settings of In Dulci Jubilo, first byScheidt,then Bach/Walter allowed the ACC to extend their vocal range widely between heaven and earth, sopranos being most angelic, in these highly complex works. Unified, balanced, expressive and technically masterful in suspensions and intricate counterpoint, the ACC held the final cadences in a way which always surprised us and aimed to take our breath away.
Colorful contrast came with The Angel Gabriel From Heaven Came,a traditional Basque carol arranged by David Wilcocks. This was another beautiful illustration of varied modal and modern influence, an almost exotic and irregular structure, with overlapping and echoing phrases. The regular exclamations of “Gloria” brought us to a final bright major chord.
Lawrence again programmed an ideal contrast with the gentle German traditional melody A Rose Has Sprung Up,a work which for over five hundred years has touched people with it’s sensitive, poetic, intimacy and timelessness – a moment of ACC uncomplicated vocal beauty.
Elizabeth Anderson’s ongoing commitment to ACC music performance, both vocally and as organ accompanist, produced more Baroque Christmas gifts. Today as a soloist she performed the 1st& 3rdMovements of Bach’s Pastorale for Organ in F: it was accomplished, pristine, beautiful and finely programmed for the occasion. The effect was highly appreciated by the audience.
The biggest challenge was the grande finale – Bach’s Motet Singet Dem Herren Ein Neues Lied (Sing Unto The Lord A New Song). Scored for two 4-part choirs, this was an excellent performance of a highly complex work. Exciting, extended fast-moving counterpoint contrasted with block harmonic grandeur, independent voices came into prominence, leading and soaring, in a breathtaking conclusion. Maintaining the intensity in concentration and technical presentation, with consistent accuracy in such a huge work is no small achievement for a “small choir”. The ACC today once again showed that great repertoire can be performed magnificently by this ensemble.
Reviewer Julie McErlain attended the ACC’s performance of A Baroque Christmas on 2 December, 2018, at St Mary of the Angels in Geelong. The program will be offered on Dec 8 in Brighton and on Dec 9 in Middle Park (Melbourne).