We’ve all heard of the recorder, and many can recognise a viol da gamba, lute, and theorbo when they see one. But how about a cittern? Or a psaltery? And a tapan? All featured in the fabulous Consort 8 concert on Saturday night, kicking off the Christmas/Advent season with a program of (mostly) Renaissance works. I say ‘mostly’ because we were also treated to the Baroque (Bach), a little early Classical (Gruber), and a touch of the 20th Century (Porter).
The core Consort 8 Ensemble was joined by Josie Ryan, a well known and much loved Sydney soprano, and Michael Atherton who can only be described as the ultimate versatile early music performer. He opened the evening with a stirring recitation of Longfellow’s poem ‘Christmas Bells’, and contributed throughout on various instruments as well as joining Josie Ryan vocally. Best of all, he plays the medieval bagpipes and after the mid-program intermission, he piped the Ensemble back to the front of the church with a toe-tapping tune.
The program, as always, was supported with detailed program notes for those of us who want to know more than composer and dates. Wonderful versions of carols and sacred songs were played on a variety of recorders and viols as the core group, with other instruments (cittern, psaltery, percussion of various types, drums, lute, theorbo, guitar etc.) joining in. In several we were treated to the voice of Josie Ryan, at times joined by Michael Atherton. Her voice is wonderfully suited to Renaissance sacred music and motets – Gaudete Omnes (Sweelinck), Veni Veni Emmanuel (Anon), and Gaudete Christus (Anon) were a wonderful opening to the first half. But it was Ryan’s deeply sensitive delivery of Tim Porter’s carol Sleep in Peace, in the second half of the program that showcased her superb voice – “….sleep of the grey and crooning wind defend you …. Run like the wave, flow like the air, sleep in peace, sleep in peace ….”. An unusual but truly exquisite carol from the 20th Century.
There were a number of recorder players and aficionados in the audience and they were not disappointed. Recorder players Sue Christie, Karen Carey, Susan Bell, and Robert Small moved to the front of the Ensemble and performed two pieces by JS Bach. Both were arranged by Bell for four recorders, and they showcased the high level of recorder expertise in this group. It is worth noting that Consort 8 has invested in a matched set of renaissance recorders, which provides a very integrated sound. The recorders also featured again, in the first movement of the Brandenburg 6th Concerto by JS Bach. (Thanks to the program notes I now know the original instrumentation was for 2 violas, 2 gambas, cello, violone, and harpsichord). The Consort presented an arrangement for four recorders, viol da gamba (Catherine Upex), lute (Bernie Williams), and theorbo (Shaung Ng) – one never ceases to be amazed that the Brandenburgs gathered dust on the shelf for about a hundred years before they were rediscovered and published.
With one exception, the carols in the program were probably unknown to most of the audience. The exception is Silent Night. Gruber composed the tune in the early 19th Century, although the version we sing these days is slightly less upbeat than the original. Consort 8 played the carol four times – first an instrumental version by contemporary Hungarian composer Toth; then Josie Ryan sang the original Gruber version; the third version featured the four recorders in harmony, and finally the sung version we are now familiar with.
What was indeed a splendid evening of Advent and Christmas music closed out with In Dulci Jubilo, a medieval carol based on a 14th Century text by the German mystic Seuse. The three verses were each arranged by one of three composers: Praetorius, Gesius, and JS Bach. The enthused and prolonged applause of the audience said it all – a fabulous start to the Christmas Season.
I have one word of advice for Consort 8 – make this a regular feature of your concert program! The Ensemble members are masters of medieval and renaissance music and I doubt any other early music instrumentalists in Sydney could present such a demanding Christmas/Advent program with such finesse. Brava tutti!