Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra/ Sydney Chamber Choir
City Recital Hall
25 March, 2018
The Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra lived up to its name in Pastoral Melodies performed in collaboration with the Sydney Chamber Choir. Three works from the Romantic canon and one from the Classical era, were performed with panache, under the baton of their esteemed artistic director and chief conductor, Richard Gill, AO with the orchestra led by Rachael Beesley.
The instrumental ensemble of 42, gathered from around the world and Australia, performed on an equally cosmopolitan collection of period instruments dating from the 17th century to present-day replicas. The positioning of the instrumentalists in the “Gewandhaus formation” (as described by Richard Gill) to play Mendelssohn and the choristers in mixed voice formation (‘scrambled’ in choir-speak) created a refreshing and well-blended sound, which served both the repertoire and its performers well.
The curtain-raiser, Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, opus 26, Fingal’s Cave, (a title most likely bestowed by the publisher) is a cliché-free tone poem, which despite its title, is a stand-alone work and a worthy example of the Romantic style. The orchestra created a wonderfully warm, yet restless sound, with exceptionally fine woodwind solos rising wistfully through the texture that ebbed and surged, rained and stormed, painting exquisitely, the profound effect that the Scottish landscape had on Mendelssohn. The 30+ musicians reflected the size of the ensemble preferred by Mendelssohn and along with the form in which the tone-poem was composed, harks back to the Classical elements of this piece. For the Gewandhaus formation, the first violins were placed on the right of the conductor, their sound directed away from the audience, while the second violins were placed on the conductor’s left. The woodwind section was placed behind and above, on risers, allowing their sound to float over the string section.
The idea of programme music continued in the second half of the concert with the 40 strong orchestra performing Beethoven’s Symphony No 6 opus 68 (Pastoral) composed some 22 years before Fingal’s Cave. Small is beautiful – and the leaner orchestral forces gave a powerful account of this symphony. This was a radiant performance with the pared back texture allowing the many individual lines and unique colours of the specialised instruments and their players, to shine, notably in the second movement’s woodwind cameos and handsome playing too from the oboes, horns and clarinets in the third movement. Throughout, the lower strings maintained rhythmic clarity and the upper strings propelled the bright melodic lines with deft articulation, dynamic contrasts and sensitive phrasing, depicting jollity and gratitude, brooks and pastures.
The 31 strong Sydney Chamber Choir’s choice of Brahms’ Fünf Gesänge (Foive Songs) opus 104 was an excellent follow-up to their performance of motets by Brahms and Mendelssohn in April 2017. The quintet of a capella songs challenges, not only with a variety of vocal and choral techniques, but with a darkness of mood. Unrequited love, the fading of spring and youthfulness, the inevitability of death and sleep are set for six-part choir, in polyphonic exchanges. The austerity of the first two songs, Nachtwache I and II (Nghtwatch I and II) was followed by a gently swaying and lightly phrased Letztes Glück (Last Happiness). The fourth song Verlorene Jugend (Lost youth), a Bohemian poem, set for five parts with the bass doubled, was performed with anguished sentiment, alternating between the portrayal of carefree youth and a more serious tone for the feeling of abandonment at its loss.
The final song, Im Herbst (In Autumn) is darkly expressive, demanding long lines of legato contrasting with vivid chromaticism, achieved with unerring pitch, leaving the audience with the sense of uncertainty and despondency as Brahms himself faced the prospect of his mortality.
There was not too much time to dwell on Brahms’ despair with W A Mozart’s exuberant Spaur Messe KV 258, ‘Piccolomini’ performed by choir and orchestra with the addition of the organ and trombones. The Sydney Chamber Choir was in glorious form with the spotlight on a quartet of choral soloists. This compact masterpiece was performed with integrity of style, a touching gravitas in the Sanctus and a majestic Agnus Dei.
Richard Gill’s understated conducting style never fails to achieve the best from his musicians; his personal charm, humour and vast musicological knowledge wins audiences unfailingly. He is at the leading edge of both ARCO and the Sydney Chamber Choir, two of Sydney’s finest ensembles, well-matched in style and philosophy. What a brilliant idea to bring them together!
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©