It’s that time of the year when concerts abound around Sydney in the countdown to Easter Sunday, many of them featuring major works by JS Bach. Consort 8’s first performance of the year, timed with the end of the Lenten Season, provided a rather nice change of pace and focus, although there was one Bach piece programmed.
Concert-goers are familiar with major symphony orchestras and many also with Baroque orchestras and chamber ensembles, but when did you last see a sackbut or two strutting their stuff on the Opera House stage?! Consort 8 (with 12 performers!) plays music from the medieval and Renaissance periods with the occasional nod to Baroque or later, and their instruments belong to the viol and recorder families (including the great bass that Robert Small has to stand to play) accompanied by theorbos and lutes. Tim Chung with his clear-sounding countertenor voice provides the vocals. In this concert, the usual line-up was supplemented by Ros Jorgensen and Michael Wyborn on sackbuts, precursor to the modern trombone (Old French saqueboute literally means ‘pull-push’).
In light of the liturgical season, the program was themed around lamentation and sorrow: many pieces connected to Old Testament passages about the sins of Jerusalem. It was fitting that the concert be in St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Burwood, with the black cloth covering the altar cross and other signs of the Lenten season providing a meaningful context for the music. The program included some Consort 8 favourites such as Gibbons, Morley, Dowland (who appears to have made his living lamenting in song), JS Bach and Palestrina, as well as arrangements by Sydney composers Clive Lane and Brian Kogler; we were also introduced to other generally unknown composers including the brilliant and still largely ignored 17th-century Czech composer Zelenka.
As a recorder player, I particularly enjoy Consort 8 concerts because they include several recorder pieces, always played with polish and technical mastery of the music. The program opened with a beautiful 15th-century (Anon.) piece for recorders that set a gentle and reflective tone for the evening, followed by Tim Chung singing Ubi Caritas (Anon.) accompanied by bass recorder and viols. Another superbly played piece, featuring five recorders and voice, was the first Lamentation from Palestrina’s Lamentations of Jeremiah, conjuring up the image of Jerusalem weeping and desolate. The balance between the recorders was very moving, evoking a sense of loss, grief, and deep sadness. Finally, Bach’s choral prelude Liebster Jesus BWV 731, originally written for organ and arranged for recorders, was the ‘recorder highlight’ of the evening for me. Susan Christie on tenor recorder laid down the theme, and was supported by three bass recorders – the perfect harmony and balance of sound between them allowed one to hear the beautifully muted tones of the organ prelude.
And then there were the sackbuts – what a treat to hear them several times during the evening! First up was Cesare’s Sonata La Hieronyma with Ros Jorgensen accompanied by two theorbos and a bass viol, playing a richly ornamented melody. A little later she was joined by Michael Wyborn for de Selma’s Canzon a 2 Tenori, in which the sackbuts were supported by a basso continuo provided by two theorbos and bass viol. Standing either side of the ‘stage’ facing each other they engaged in a kind of musical dialogue back and forth, sometimes playing together, sometimes seeming to challenge the other to match their flourishes and runs. This was one of my favourite pieces of the evening, and they made sackbut playing look easy! Similarly Cima’s Sonata is scored for two sackbuts and the basso continuo grouping, again allowing the players to demonstrate their technical mastery, and Merula’s Sonata with its change of pace midway had the audience chuckling at being left hanging with the last note unresolved. Brilliant playing is not an overstatement, and I was reminded again how lucky we are in Sydney to be able to hear this level of performance expertise without paying exorbitant ticket prices.
A tip of the hat to the modern era is usually tucked into the medieval and Renaissance music of a Consort 8 program. This concert was no exception with Clive Lane’s reflective and dreamy Quiet Thoughts scored for viols, and Brian Kogler’s setting of an anonymous song extolling the Virgin Mary set as a round for two bass recorders and counter-tenor. A series of three secular laments followed, the first two about swans (legend has it a swan sings only just before its death) included a three part round for recorders by Kogler, and the 16th-century song The Silver Swan by Orlando Gibbons. This was followed by the “smuching of a white lily” by Robert Johnson scored for theorbo and viols with countertenor.
The piece that was sure to be new to virtually everyone in the audience was the final work, Lamentation 2 pro die Mercurii Sancto by Jan Zelenka whose music is known for its harmonic and counterpoint brilliance. Many of his 250 works including more than 20 masses were presumed lost during the WWII bombing of Dresden but turned up in 1945. Thank goodness! He is still being ‘rediscovered’ by lovers of Baroque music and this grand finale with all instruments including sackbuts will have hopefully whetted some musical appetites to hear more. True to its title, there was an anguish and deep sense of grief in the music. It was a fitting number to close on, given the Lenten theme of the program.
And if this review has whetted your musical appetite, mark 6pm Saturday 10 August in your diary for Consort 8’s second 2019 concert entitled Sing Ye Sweet Viols with guest soprano Ria Andriani. As always, the evening will close with a free glass of bubbly and a delightful spread.