Consort 8, a vibrant early music ensemble focussed on music for recorders and viola da gambas, kicked off my Christmas season at Santa Sabina Chapel in Strathfield. I was particularly excited by the program of Advent and Christmas music full of pieces I had never heard of.
Ten musicians were featured, with over half playing more than one instrument including various Renaissance and Baroque recorders, a contrabass that Robert Small had to stand to play, three sizes of viola da gamba (for the uninitiated, rather like a cello but with 6 strings), viola, violin, theorbo (somewhere between a very long necked guitar and a lute), oboe and various percussion instruments. Counter-tenor Timothy Chung also sang in several of the pieces.
Haunting bass and treble recorders
A detailed and informative program provided translations of songs, details about the music, composers, and instruments, and at three points (including the obligatory retuning of the viols) an ensemble member provided some interesting additional information about the music and the instruments.
The program opened with a 14th-century rondeau entitled The end is my beginning and the beginning my end – this can be played from beginning to end or backwards from end to beginning as it is identical. This was followed by the well known O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, a 15th-century French melody, introduced with haunting bass and treble recorders. This was probably the most exquisite rendition of this carol I have heard. Initially I thought Tim Chung’s singing was being gently supported by a baroque organ – but it was no organ, just several recorders, played in perfect harmony and balance.
The second set included three dances on Christmas themes by 16th-century composer Anthony Holborne. The Galliards were bright and bouncy, and the recorders played with lightness and precise articulation.
New discoveries for Advent music
Well-known composers featured in the program included Michael Praetorius, Telemann, and Bach. The Praetorius dances were especially enjoyable – he must have loved dancing because apparently he wrote more than 300! I was transported into a 16th-century alehouse, where after a few beers and with toes tapping, patrons pushed back the tables to dance to the music. It was clear the musicians were having a good time playing the three pieces too!
Timothy Chung’s counter-tenor instrument was well suited to the music requiring voice. I loved the five-part motet by Aichinger, very reminiscent of Tallis, scored for four viols with the voice singing the middle line. This was a superb blending of strings and voice, and was performed in a deeply meditative and moving fashion. Similarly, Schlafe mein liebster, from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, was wonderfully sung and a reminder that no Christmas program is complete without Bach. Supporting Chung was Welvin Potter on oboe d’amore (more of him on this instrument next time please!), violin, viola, bass viol and theorbo.
Virtuosic and flashy recorder playing
Bach was also represented in a Chorale Prelude and a Fughetta, both written for organ originally but arranged for recorder ensemble. Here we truly experienced the high standard of Consort 8’s recorder playing – the perfect blending of instruments that mimicked the organ, with delicate phrasing, spot-on articulation and some fine ornamentation by Welvin Potter playing the melody in the Prelude. Potter shone again later in the program as the soloist performing Telemann’s virtuosic and flashy Fantasia in B flat major. If anyone had come to this concert thinking recorders were at the easy end of the instrument continuum they would have certainly changed their opinion at this point!
The program closed with In Dulci Jubilo, a carol written in the 14th-century, and arranged by Praetorius for two choirs of four recorders and four viols. It was a fitting climax to a varied and demanding program of 22 Christmas and Advent pieces, much of the music little known and performed in a polished and professional manner. The prolonged applause was testimony to this.
A glass of wine, delicious nibbles, and good conversation with friends and players rounded out an excellent start to the Christmas season.