I had been looking forward to reviewing this concert ever since the 2018 brochure appeared in my letterbox. English music of around 400 years ago is simply divine. It’s the music of Shakespeare’s time, and the music dramatic.
Our program started in near darkness with just a spotlight on the chamber organ. Music of Orlando Gibbons filled the recital hall, beautifully played by Heidi Jones. Then the lights go up, just a little, to the chamber choir of just 17, singing William Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus. Pure and solemn, the chamber choir’s pianissimos were stunning and intensely spiritual.
The Gibbons continued with a smattering of violas and celli in a line performing an instrumental version of Drop, drop slow tears. And finally, the man we had been waiting for – countertenor supremo, Max Riebl. One of my favourite pieces, The silver swan, was next on the agenda and Riebl delivered in spades, with Shaun Lee-Chen joining the octet of lower strings. The next three Gibbons anthems could be have been delivered in an English chapel for all we knew – the sound of the Brandenburg Choir was heavenly, soulful and very respectful, with some beautiful duets between Riebl and the choir’s countertenor and bass soloists in the Great Lord of Lords.
From 9 strings to 33 and we have the biggest ABO on stage in history, with a big sound for Purcell’s Overture and Rondeau from Abdelazer! There was great energy from the impeccably dressed orchestra as this first half of the concert went from the sublime to the immense – the Rondeau particularly passionate, fiery and nothing like the versions we used to play at primary school. Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op. 6/7 was equally tremendous, and such a party piece with excellent playing from the newly formed Brandenburg Quartet as the four soloists.
The highlight of the first half has to be Purcell’s Cold Song from King Arthur – wow. The lights went to frosty blue, and there were veritable chills down each audience members spine as the strings started playing. Riebl’s powerful and icy high notes were thrilling or ‘other-worldly’ – to quote my colleague, who thought Purcell must have been a great influence on the future Michael Nynam. Thank all above for the cheery Fammi combattere from Handel’s Orlando to finish off a fantastic first half!
The saddest thing about the second half was no more Riebl – luckily the choir were equally as spectacular. More excellent lighting for the Matthew Locke piece and three more Tallis anthems – a very gentle and serene start to this half. Of particular interest was hearing Tallis’ Why fumeth in fight from Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter. This is tune that Ralph Vaughan Williams used for the basis of our show stopping Fantasia in tonight’s concert – and the choir sang it with a jolly and upbeat tempo. The finale, our much waited for Fantasia, was a fitting finish to tonight’s 400-year journey. Hearing this on the warmth of gut strings, with a choir of 9 players in the ‘organ gallery’ and the Brandenburg Quartet representing the ‘swell’ of the organ, was spectacular. In time, this piece will settle into one of the ABO’s finest performance memories.
Sydney – 23, 28 February, 2, 3 March
Melbourne – 24, 25 February
Australian Brandenburg Orchestra | Thomas Tallis’ England | Wednesday 21 February 2018 | City Recital Hall, Sydney