Above: Conductor Sam Allchurch. Featured Image: Members of the Sydney Chamber Choir- Photo Credit Nick Gilbert

The Sydney Chamber Choir has started its impressive 2017 season with a concert swathed in exciting emotional moments and exquisite restraint. Audience members who can attend all events in this season will cherish some special experiences of major works. The choir’s skilfully balanced programmes will also successfully juxtapose smaller works from many different time periods.

For this ‘German Romantics’ concert the choir was led by Sam Allchurch in a joyous cavalcade of German choral music. The selected works ranged in chronology from Schubert’s Gott ist mein Hirt (The Lord is my Shepherd) composed in 1820 to Arnold Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden (Peace on Earth) written in 1907.                  

The works were not sung in order of compositional date, but instead appeared  in a pleasing mix which spread a capella and accompanied works by the seven featured composers quite evenly throughout the evening.

Works with accompaniment benefitted from the musicianship of pianist Jem Harding. His superb voice leading and well characterised support of the choir rounded out the offerings from the choir. Harding also contributed a Mendelssohn piano solo to the Romantic tapestry.

His interpretation of the Rondo capriccioso Op 14 (1830) matched the virtuosic control of nuance and degrees of expression already in evidence from Sam Allchurch and the Sydney Chamber Choir.

Allchurch’s precise conducting style allowed room for direction of text delivery. Shifting Romantic affectations and knife-edge contrasts of nuance as well as steady building to climaxes were all clearly controlled by this passionate and intelligent conductor.

A highlight of the collected German Romanticism on offer was the inclusion of the rich choral works by contemporaries Johannes Brahms and Heinrich von Herzogenberg. The clarity and deep intensity of text setting required in the three works by Brahms and the two Herzogenberg pieces were well treated by the choir.

Such realisation of  exciting text setting with extremes of nuance was in evidence in the declamation which opens sections of Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen? Op 74 (1877) by Brahms. This dramatic a capella motet, ‘Why is light given to the wretched?’ was a highlight of the selected Brahms works, if a highlight could indeed be chosen from such a field.

In addition to the musicological treats of this concert, including a superb pre-concert talk by conductor Sam Allchurch, the consistent beauty of choral tone and attack as well as the precise interplay of parts throughout each work’s trajectory guaranteed the success of this event. A very high level of excitement and anticipation for the listener prevailed despite the changes from one small work to the next and momentum throughout the concert was maintained with refined poise.

There was a nice switch to soprano and alto voices for the concert’s third item, a setting of Psalm 23 text, Gott ist mein Hirt (The Lord is my Shepherd) by Schubert. There was intricate and sympathetic piano accompaniment from Jem Harding during this work.

It was enjoyable to hear two pieces of beautifully constructed choral music setting Psalm texts by Mendelssohn to open the concert. These were sung with the quality blend of the responsive instrument that is the Sydney Chamber Choir. Richte Mich, Gott Op 78 ( ‘Judge Me O God’) from 1948 and also Denn er hat seine Engeln (For He has given His angels charge over you) written in 1846 from his oratorio ‘Elijah’ bookended the concert with the far-reaching Friede auf Erden Op 13 (Peace on Earth) composed in 1907 to finish.

Friede auf Erden is another complex and compelling unaccompanied work. It was  introduced  to this audience with the bold straightforward flair characteristic of this expressive group.

The Sydney Chamber Choir next performs at the Great Hall, University of Sydney on July 23, with a program including Benjamin Britten’s cantata Saint Nicholas.