It is clear that Consort 8 has been steadily building a faithful fan base over the last few years. They were coming through the door a good half hour before the concert commenced – yes, there was the promise of a free glass of champagne, but I don’t think that was really the attraction. Fans want a good seat – near the front where they can see and experience the intimacy of this wonderful Renaissance and Baroque period ensemble.
Consort 8 is quite unique among Sydney ensembles.
- First the recorder predominates – five of the ensemble are superb exponents of this tricky instrument, and that definitely attracts the local recorder aficionados.
- Secondly, the ensemble counts a percussionist and a castanet-playing counter-tenor among their members, along with viols and lute/theorbo/baroque guitar.
This gives the ensemble tremendous flexibility to programme unusual, rarely heard, and largely obscure works. Sunday was no exception – a veritable feast of delicious 16th and 17th Century works, most of them from Spain and Italy, were served up to a full hall.
Consort 8 opened their 75 minute program with Tim Chung, counter-tenor, singing Ingredere by Italian organist and composer, Corteccia who spent much of his professional life working for the Medici family. This piece is a welcome to the bride Eleonora of Toledo (Spain) when she arrives to marry Cosimo de Medici. “Come in …. Come in … to our city … “ which was indeed a welcome to the audience to enter into the festival of music ahead.
This was followed by three recorders playing Canon in 3 Parts – where one starts, then the second two bars behind playing the same tune, and then the third. Some how it all comes together! Having begun with the ‘ancient’ we then found ourselves in the ‘modern’, namely 20th Century Australia, listening to an amazing piece by Peter Sculthorpe. Rob Small on his huge contra-bass recorder mimicked a didgeridoo undergirding the other three recorders as they wove a distinctively indigenous sound based on an aboriginal song from the Northern Territory. It surprised me how naturally this music seemed to fit in alongside music from the other side of the world, and composed centuries earlier.
Much of the music performed was written by Spanish or Italian composers, many of them associated with the church as organist or choir master. One exquisite example was Triste Estaba by the Spanish priest-composer Mudarra, who composed some of the earliest surviving guitar music. Triste is based on the text detailing the grief of King David at the death of Absalom, which Tim Chung sang with great depth of feeling and pathos. Another Spanish piece was O Sacred Convivium, a five part motet by Morales, featuring four viol da gamba players as well as Tim Chung, whose voice seems ideally suited to such music.
No Consort 8 concert would be complete without a little melancholy (very fashionable in the late 15th Century) and John Dowland is just the man to turn to. Of the three Dowland pieces, I loved Mr John Langton his Pavane (odd name for a piece of music!) with Jo Arnott on tenor recorder supported by three others on bass recorder. The harmony and blending of sound was wonderful – a result of each person playing recorders from a matched consort purchased by the ensemble.
The second leap forward from the Ancient to the Modern featured the work of Louise Welsh, percussionist with Consort 8. Her music was composed specifically for the recorder set purchased by the ensemble, and featured five recorders from the small high pitched sopranino down to the bass, supported by a driving and changing rhythm on drum played by the composer herself. Despite the music being completely different from the 16th Century selections, there was a sense of continuity with what had come before, and the audience reaction attested to how enjoyable it was.
The evening closed with the eight-part Tant Seullement by Guyot (Franco-Flemish) who served most of his professional life as master of music in the cathedral in Vienna and then in Liege. Three recorders, four viols, lute, and voice – all making a joyful sound to close out a wonderfully varied programme.
My own choice for the final item of the night would have been Un Sarao de la Chacona, by Spanish composer Aranes. This is rather bawdy 17th Century number that didn’t leave too much to the imagination judging by the lyrics provided in the programme. One suspects that in real life, after playing it once through as an instrumental version (including castanets, and viol players marking the beat with their hand on the instrument in the middle of complicated and rapid finger work) and a standard verse or two, the locals probably made up their own raunchy lyrics as the evening progressed and they became more inebriated. All great fun, very boisterous, and definitely proof that in the 17th Century music wasn’t always staid religious motets!
Finally, many thanks to the unnamed person who wrote the extensive and detailed programme notes. While some patrons prefer to just sit back and enjoy the music, not worrying too much about who wrote it when and for what reason, others relish the details, given how few of these composers we have any prior knowledge.
As I drove home, I mused on the power of music to transport the listener to a place far away from the current events both in our own country and around the world that seem to endlessly intrude on our thinking. Music, whether ancient or modern, religious or secular, takes us somewhere else. The Consort 8 program was a wonderful weaving of sung and instrumental music that both delighted and touched deep within. The final Consort 8 programme this year, featuring Josie Ryan soprano, will present music for Advent and Christmas, on Saturday 2 December, at St Pauls Anglican Church, Burwood. Join the fans!