A Baroque Christmas
Australian Chamber Choir
St Mary’s Cathedral Crypt, Sydney
24 November 2018
Christmas isn’t Christmas without certain musical essentials. Anything seasonal by Sir David Willcocks and J S Bach, the melodies of Martin Luther and Michael Praetorius and the contrasting aesthetics of Lutheran simplicity with Baroque complexity, represent a dimension of Christmas music which is fast disappearing. Add to this list music by Schütz, Scheidt and Gabrieli and this glorious repertoire becomes increasingly hard to find in Sydney, except in a liturgical setting, as programming bends to secular songs and Christmas ‘pops.’ The Melbourne based Australian Chamber Choir’s return tour to Sydney with A Baroque Christmas was a welcome opportunity to pay homage to this repertoire.
Twenty voices led by founding director Douglas Lawrence OAM with soloists drawn from the choir, performed music of wonderment and joy. There were enduring classics and esoteric gems with two pastorales by J S Bach performed with touching serenity by choral alto Elizabeth Anderson at the organ.
The mood was distinctly celebratory, as the ensemble and organ opened with Andreas Hammerschmidt’s Halleluja, Freuet euch, ihr Christen alle, a 5-part chorus in antiphonal style with verses sung by a trio of male voices alternating with the chorus sung by the full choir.
Mysticism is an integral element of the Christmas narrative. A sense of wonderment was beautifully created with Gabrieli’s O Magnum Mysterium and Das Wort ward Fleisch by Heinrich Schütz. Both sung a capella, the hushed entries grew powerfully into glory, the Gabrieli piece concluding with a chorus of declamatory Alleluias and the piece by Schütz swelling to cascading melismas tossed from one voice part to the other – arguably the highlight of the afternoon.
Singt und klingkt by Praetorius and the more popular Es ist ein Ros entsprungen arranged by him were exquisitely performed; the former with voices pealing and ringing; the latter, successfully taken at a nimble tempo without compromise to its flawless beauty.
Soprano Elspeth Bawden stepped out from the choral ranks for her ethereally beautiful solo of JS Bach’s O Jesulein süß! Her superb technical control and supple tone underpinned a childlike delicacy and innocence in interpretation.
Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem, with alternating verses by Bartholomäus Gesius and Michael Praetorius sat very high in the tessitura, the female voices creating a shimmering sound in singing of the gifts from the three wise men. Also performed a capella, the voices took turns in narrating the story to the dancing rhythms of this clever composite piece.
The ensemble gave an accomplished and scholarly account of the major works in the programme, not one, but two of six (known) incomparable motets by J S Bach, Lobet den Herren BWV 230 and Singet dem Herren BWV 225. Works by Eccard and Sweelinck rounded out this substantial and entertaining program of classics.
Singing in German, Latin and English and supported by comprehensive program notes with text and translations, this was a splendid performance by the Australian Chamber Choir. They adapted well to their acoustic, although the low ceilings and reverberant walls created some blurring of lengthy polyphonic lines which could have been more clearly articulated.
Kudos to Douglas Lawrence for gently directing applause at specific breaks in the sequence, rather than after every item – an observation I made in a previous review of the ACC. The continuity of the music allows for unbroken focus of tonal relationships and of mood for both performers and audience.
With its sublime sound, informed performance and exemplary ensemble skills, the Australian Chamber Choir has a growing following in Sydney, ticking many other boxes with a substantial discography and regular overseas tours.
Regardless of one’s religious persuasion, it is impossible to turn away from the historical and musical values of the repertoire presented last weekend. Nor may they be dismissed as irrelevant in time and place – no more irrevelant than the fun of Frosty the Snowman, Bing Crosby’s nostalgic crooning of A White Christmas or Leroy Anderson’s jolly Sleigh Ride.
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©