Thursday, 20 February 2014

Catching up - Part 1

Apologies for the infrequent posting of late, it has been for want of time not material.  I should soon like to do a longer post on the recent news about the new document from the Holy See, "Sacred Music: Fifty Years after the Council".  For the time being, I recommend reading the document immediately, and reading the Chant Cafe's take on it.

Also, I hope to post about upcoming concerts in Sydney, including the Bach Magnificat, a Venetian Coronation at St Mary's Cathedral (local forces conducted by the excellent Paul McCreesh - aren't Sydney-siders being spoiled this year) and the King's College Choir tour of Australia.

Here I post the first part of a summary of stories I should like to have posted about in greater detail in the past six months or so:
  • Choral music concerts in Sydney:
    • The St Mary's Cathedral Choir sang the oratorio Messiah in full - I said I would come back with a full review, but alas time escaped me.  Suffice it to say that the singing of the choir was remarkable.  The closest recording I can compare it to (singing wise) would be the New College Choir one under Higginbottom, the major difference being that in the latter they had the period instruments of the Academy of Ancient Music, whereas in Sydney, for understandable reasons, a modern instrument orchestra was employed.  It was chamber in size, and played with period instrument sensibilities, but the trumpets in particular were noticeably 'modern' sounding.  The solo parts had very well advised embellishments (a sign that much thought and preparation had gone into the rendering of the score), and the solo singing was never less than strong.  The concert was a triumph, and one eagerly awaits more of this nature in the coming years;  
    • The Brandenburg gave a stunning account of the Mozart "Great" Mass in C minor - reviews from the opening night were more subdued, citing for example haphazard tempi and some instrumental infelicities - but I saw the third concert and it (setting aside the questionable pre-interval programme) was simply superb.  The period instrument playing was distinctly mature but no less lively and engaging for it (Paul Dyer's training under masters such as Bruggen and Kuijken clearly paying off), and the singing - from soloists and choir - was very accomplished indeed.  This performance easily outdid many of the period performances committed to disc by European ensembles, and was a riveting account of Mozart's unfinished masterpiece.  Though my ears are now more accustomed to (and favour) this style of performance, I still recall with great fondness when this work was conducted at the Sydney Opera House in 2007 by the late Sir Charles Mackerras.  He had altogether bigger forces at hand, the SSO and Philharmonia Choirs, at least doubling those of the Brandenburg.  As for the Bach Magnificat by the Brandenburg, the opening concert was on Wednesday - this review cites similar  instrumental problems to those I heard anecdotally in relation to the opening night of the Mozart Great Mass - so I hope that they have been sorted out for the performance I am attending tonight; 
    • The Tallis Scholars visited the Antipodes in October last year, and performed at St Mary's Cathedral (having been displaced from the Sydney Opera House due to the excessive noise of that building's 40th anniversary party!)  I was unable to attend, but by all accounts they sang Allegri's Miserere and Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli, pieces not unfamiliar to worshippers at said cathedral, with customary aplomb; 
    • The Australian Brandenburg gave its customary series of yuletide concerts, Noel Noel - I attended the one at St Peter's Anglican Church in Cremorne.  As expected, the singing was of the usual high standard, though there was a distinct lack of polyphonic pieces which usually form part of the programme, perhaps explained by the chosen 'Celtic' theme.  At their expense were some odd inclusions, such as "Somewhere over the rainbow" and "Santa baby", seemingly not Celtic either, though they seem to have been well received by most of the audience.  
    • But it was one of the last concerts in a year of such excellent ones that deserves special mention.  It was the Bach Christmas Oratorio.  One Sydney Concert, with the Australian Chamber Orchestra (in period instrument mode), and the Choir of London, conducted by Richard Tognetti (originally it was to be Gardiner's crack choir the Monteverdi Choir with the great man conducting).  First, let's get out of the way some of the minor deficiencies in the performance.  The choir, whilst never falling below excellent, occasionally had problems with blend, especially in the upper register.  This is likely due to two factors: it is an occasional choir made up of (albeit first rate) soloists from the UK (established, commendably, to pursue charitable purposes).  I would have preferred a choir like the Vocalconsort Berlin that sang Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in Sydney in January this year (with the Waltz choreography which I had seen in Lyon in 2009) - I quite concur with their description as 'dynamic and homogeneous'.  And secondly, the small scale choir had to project itself into the large concert hall at the Opera House, with its unobliging acoustic.  Those minor criticisms aside, this was a choral feast to behold.  The entire work of six cantatas was performed, with generous interval.  Some say this made the concert too long, a view which I find hard to comprehend.  At less than 2 1/2 hours of actual performance, the concert is hardly War and Peace, though obviously demanding for the performers.  A professional orchestra and choir at a premier venue simply could not justify performing highlights, or just a few of the cantatas (despite the liturgical setting in which they would once have been performed) - a view clearly shared by Tognetti and most directors of his calibre (see video below). In any event, the concert was one of the undoubted highlights of the year.  The Australian Chamber Orchestra lived up to its reputation as one of the finest chamber ensembles in the world - precise, and rich in tone.  Tognetti's directing, and solo violin playing, were sensational.  The period trumpets were played with great authority and flair.  When it was announced that Gardiner was to give this concert, I immediately listened to my Arkiv Proucktion recording of the work, and tracked down the performance in 2000 as part of his Bach pilgrimage.  Both are outstanding renderings of the work.  The performance in Sydney - Gardiner-less as it was - was of an equivalent quality, and there couldn't have been a better way to foreshadow the Christmas season.  

More to come ...