Our Lady of Mount Carmel was the perfect venue for this program of splendid mostly Baroque Christmas music, with its glorious interior and an acoustic that favours all voice parts equally. Douglas Lawrence conducted eight of the eighteen from the full Australian Chamber Choir, and you could clearly sense their enjoyment working together in a smaller group, and they were attuned to each other with exceptional care. The blend was remarkable for so few singers, but at the same time there was ample opportunity for individual voices to shine. Their attention was always on the conductor and the audience – no heads buried in music in this group! Lawrence conducts with clarity and discretion, and sometimes not at all – the choir knows very well how to do it without him; it phrases expertly.
In the opening item, the verses of In Dulci Jubilo alternated between the settings of J S Bach and Johann Walter, which proved to be a very effective showcase for both. The singing was sweet, sure and smooth. Similarly, in the Praetorius carols that followed, there was a lovely effect from alternate verses of Praetorius and Gesius settings in Ein Kind geborn – two for the price of one! The immediately succeeding Singt und klingt was smartly performed, very jolly and lively, finishing on a really lovely long sustained chord.
In the next bracket of two Schutz motets, there were some slight problems with intonation but some fine throwing of vocal parts from part to part in the first, Das Wort ward Fleisch. Perhaps there was a small sense of going through the motions – they were beautifully sung, but without full excitement in the cross rhythms. Related to this, one of the things we have often noticed about Baroque vocal music, both as listeners and choristers, is its often rather narrow dynamic range. One of our former directors of music argues that this was integral to the style of music, and that it was inauthentic to make extensive use of crescendo and diminuendo. So it was in this performance with the choir mostly singing at pretty much the same level in the Baroque pieces.
However, how lucky we all were to have an acoustic in which one of the delights was the beauty that came from the variety of texture achieved from solos, or just a couple of voices. One of the highlights in this vein later in the concert was There is no rose in which the five verses each featured two beautifully matched voices from pairings of soprano, tenor and alto – the first duet between soprano Katherine Leischke and tenor Will Carr particularly beautiful in its simplicity. The same clarity of texture was heard too in the remaining verses (Verse 2 soprano Kate McBride and tenor Sam Rowe; Verse 3 altos Isobel Todd and Elizabeth Anderson; Verse 4 Leischke and Carr; Verse 5 McBride and Rowe).
Next was a trio of French Noëls, the first the Charles Wood arrangement of Ding dong merrily on high. Here Lawrence made use of Baroque terraced dynamics, in this case where whole verses were sung either softly or at fuller volume, to great effect. This was followed by one of Daquin’s organ Noëls (No. 10) arranged by Elizabeth Anderson – a bit of a curiosity, but bouncy and Baroquely entertaining with its trills and mordents intact; it was a fine arrangement, at a slower tempo than we might normally hear on the organ. Some satisfyingly bright high notes from soprano Kate McBride’s descant in Anderson’s arrangement of Angels we have heard on high lifted the ending well out of the ordinary.
The Tomkins’ Magnificat from his Second Service was given a workmanlike performance in the cathedral tradition, with four on each side taking the decani and cantoris parts. We might have wished for a little more attention to final consonants and sibilants to catch all the English words of this canticle. Similarly, in the third last bracket in the concert, Mark Tredinnick’s words to the new carols by Alan Holley would have benefited enormously had we been given the benefit of clearer final consonants – particularly for those of us who hadn’t scanned our QR codes to follow the text.
After the Magnificat came Eccard’s setting of Resonet in laudibus, a pleasing and jolly arrangement, followed by a different and lovely harmonisation of the same melody in Josef lieber Josef mein by Schroeter, in contrast rocking like a lullaby.
Next we heard two beautifully spare old English carols: Coventry Carol (1591) and There is no Rose (c. 1420). The Coventry Carol would have benefited from a little more space between the verses to fully appreciate the story being told. Perhaps there could have been a bit more raging in the Herod verse, but the final soft “lully lullay” was simply perfect. Lawrence’s choice not to conduct There is no Rose seemed to give the whole thing a freedom and a luminosity, allowing the choristers precious personal expression. The acoustic seemed to cherish this, making for a superb performance.
The Tredinnick and Holley Two Carols of Australian Birds were very fine, accessible settings, with some adventurous harmonies. Written for the Australian Chamber Choir, in these 21st century carols we heard the fully expressive dynamic sound that the choir can produce, and it rose splendidly to the occasion.
Herbert Howells could hardly be called a Baroque composer, but his A spotless rose had its lyrical solo verse sung beautifully by Sam Rowe. It was especially affecting to hear this 1919 work in counterpoint to its German equivalent in the succeeding Praetorius setting of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen – although the latter was sung in a rather more sprightly style than we are used to hearing.
The concert closed with Bach’s magnificent Lobet den Herrn, the only motet written for four voices (most of the others being for double SATB choir), but “even by Bachian criteria the counterpoint is elaborate” (Program note by R J Stove). Parts move swiftly, on this occasion mixing into a lovely cloud of sound, but as often happens with complex polyphony, losing clarity in the highly reverberant acoustic.
Personally, we would have been happy for the concert to end on a high here. It was a most satisfying range of choral experiences, a thoughtfully constructed program sung by a top-notch choir. Instead it closed with Lawrence leading the audience in a rather lugubrious rendition of Angels we have heard on high whose Gloria refrains can be the enemy of unanimity and rapturous enjoyment. Good clean fun for the audience and in the Christmas spirit, but ….
Kristina and Bruce Macrae reviewed “Baroque Christmas” presented by the Australian Chamber Choir at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Middle Park, on Sunday December 10, 2023.