As a sizeable audience took their places in the pews of Edmund Blackett’s Gothic Revival church of St. Paul’s Anglican in Burwood, a sole rousing drum marked the opening of this final concert for Consort 8 in 2019. Appropriately, the program featured music for Advent and Christmas from the haunting 15th-century song of the nuns of Chester to French carols by Marc Antoine Charpentier.
A seven-part motet by Heinrich Schütz was creatively re-orchestrated for the ensemble of countertenor, recorders, viols, lute and theorbo. The creative license taken in the orchestration of first piece was well justified as Schütz struggled to maintain consistent choristers and instrumentalists in his time composing in Dresden, due to the presence of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Tim Chung (countertenor) did the rearrangement total justice, achieving a genuine blend with the ensemble and singing the original soprano part of the motet. Chung maintained a strong connection to the remainder of the ensemble throughout the program from the pulpit, as his fellow artists formed a deep horse-shoe in the church sanctuary. Following this effective realisation of the Schütz, the Qui Creavit Coelum (Song of the Nuns of Chester) opened and closed with a processional tolling that shimmered through the ‘congregation’ to the back of the pews. A pin-drop atmosphere was created by Louise Welch (percussion) who timed her tolling effectively without direction. Bells also introduced the following anonymous 10th century setting of Of the Father’s Love Begotten. The recorder trio featured in this work after a well-navigated solo from Susan Foulcher (bass recorder). This was accompanied by a haunting, perfect fifth drone from the viola da gamba. Recorders continued to be a highlight of the program in Muséte de Choisi by François Couperin as the two soprano recorders achieved stunning harmony and counterpoint (Susan Foulcher, Jude Huxtable) as they played deep and true into the harmonics of their instruments. These recorders were accompanied by a vivacious viola da gamba, drum and tambourine resembling that of a medieval estampie. Audible humming and visible tapping occurred throughout the next two numbers with one nearby audience member remarking to her concert partner, ‘this one is a favourite of mine’ in Noël Nouvelet. A lively rendition of the call and response style Tambourins by Lefébure-Wély closed a lively French set.
The rare programming of ‘Golden Age’ composer Gregor Aichinger with his Noe Noe proved a highlight of Tim Chung’s pleasing countertenor in this concert. A cantor-like setting featured in the countertenor’s part in this arrangement of a motet for Christmas Day as the rest of the ensemble provided accompaniment. Chung approached the German texts in this part of the concert more lyrically than the more accentuated type of German often found on concert hall stages in Johann Sebastian Bach cantatas and later repertoire. This choice gave his musical phrase a pleasing sense of musicality as both Chung and the consort of viols dug into their parts and tapered their phrases off ever so effectively for the resonant space. The closing piece prior to interval was the Andreas Hammerschmidt setting of Machet die Tore weit from verses 7-10 of Psalm 24. Setting this text is a common choice for German composers. Most notably is perhaps Georg Philipp Telemann’s setting in the cantata for orchestra, choir and soloists (TWV 1:1074). Whilst Telemann’s Baroque setting is of monumentality in depicting the strength God has over his adherents, this Hammerschmidt setting depicts immense joy and excitement at the coming of God. Consort 8 captured this excitement to a tee in their rendition, bringing the concert to interval.
Those audience members familiar with Marc Antoine Charpentier’s Messe di Minuit were in for a treat at the return of the Consort 8 to the sanctuary. The 17th-century carols that feature in Charpentier’s mass appeared almost verbatim in Noëls sur les instruments (Carols on the instruments), an arrangement for Consort 8. The presence of common carols in Charpentier’s music is consistently present in his output and Consort 8 did great justice to the joy and familiarity of these themes in their performance. The arrangement featured effective, stylistic ornamentation in the recorder parts (whereas in the Kyrie of the Messe di Minuit, it would be found in the string parts of modern-day publications). The choices made were appropriate for the flexibility of the instruments, with recorders more flexible for melodic embellishment than the violas da gamba chosen for this concert. Consort 8 also took some liberties that paid off immensely in Ou sen vent Cessnas guys bergers? where we first heard a strict setting in common 4/4 meter and were then brought unexpectedly into a joyous re-setting in 3/4 meter, resembling a gigue of sorts.
Various music groups around Sydney have recently performed new Australian works on Baroque period instruments, including Alice Chance’s Fiat Lux (originally commissioned by Leichardt Espresso Chorus) which was re-commissioned for period instruments recently for the Sydney Conservatorium Early Music Ensemble. This concert was no exception, with the inclusion of a round and carol A Boy is Born by Brian Kogler (who consented to a rearrangement by Consort 8 in this program) and a setting of Angelus ad Virginem by Clive Lane. The inclusion of these two pieces by Consort 8 was effective in providing the platform for [perhaps] a new emerging sound world of contemporary Australian music.
Following a set of Catalonian and Spanish carols, J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 (First Movement, tempo unspecified) was performed at an energetic Allegro by the ensemble. This time the consort re-arranged themselves into a section of basso continuo at the back of the sanctuary (bass viol and theorbo) and a horseshoe of recorders including the bass recorder furthest downstage. The staging achieved tremendous balance for the instrumentation of six recorders and continuo. Consort 8 achieved an entirely different blend of timbres in this piece which culminated the evening’s program, particularly with regards to the close counterpoint harmonies of 2nds and 7ths we are so used to hearing on strings in the current day (particularly on gut strings with groups such as the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Pinchgut Opera and The Muffat Collective).
Consort 8 presented a thoroughly engaging program of music that took measured risks that paid dividends to its audience. The programming worked seamlessly and concertgoers were left moved by the ensemble’s power in bringing this centuries-old music to life in the modern-day.
Watch this space for Consort 8’s 2020 season.