Brahms’ German Requiem was the advertised centrepiece of the Sydney Chamber Choir’s thematically titled Creativity + Loss performance on 14 June at the Great Hall, Sydney University, as part of the 2015 concert cycle to celebrate the Choir’s 40th anniversary. But the concert also included a number of classical and modern pieces to display the variety and breadth of the Choir’s range, nuance the performance across a lengthy program, and provide the listener with a diverse choral experience and possibly some welcome discoveries.
Conductor Nicolas Routley, the founder of the then Sydney University Chamber Choir, returned to conduct a very fine performance throughout, interspersed with witty and insightful commentary. A fitting return as he has been instrumental in shaping the Choir to merge the classical traditions with modern currents and thus ensure that the Choir retains the traditional values of beautiful choral characteristics but also incorporates a modern edge.
The first piece, György Ligeti’s 1966 composition “Lux aenterna”, started with a creative display by the choir forming an inward facing circle, setting the scene to visually mirror Ligeti’s evocative yet dispassionate choral mood like a magical incantation by a circle of high priests. It felt like a forcefield of sound emanating from the centre of the group and enveloping the audience in its otherworldly sound cloud. There is something inherently thrilling and intellectually stimulating by combining such an avant garde piece within a traditional format of a classical choir, whose control of pitch, tone and timing was fabulous and set a high water mark for the entire afternoon.
After the modern Ligeti, the next three performances looked back to renaissance pieces commencing with Guillaume Dufay’s ‘Nuper rosarum flores’, and followed by Johannes Ockeghem’s ‘Salve Regina’ and Josquin des Pres’ ‘Veni, Sancte Spiritus’. The almost mathematical plainsong structure of the Dufay and the stimulating counterpoint melodies of the Ockeghem and des Pres compositions provided the singers with a chance to impress with their team work. Renaissance choral work can sound a little homogenous to modern ears without lengthy listening experience or an academic and musical background to fully appreciate the inherent musical subtleties, but the Choir’s skilful presentation contained many interesting stylistic facets and the singing was beautiful.
The Choir’s use of thrilling and diverse vocal techniques and styles was also evident in Clare Maclean’s 2015 composition ‘Above the Water’. During a live performance, and if previously unheard, the grand creative impulse is often missed or not fully divined, but the effect of its impact is not necessarily weakened, at times even enhanced due to its freshness. While a ninth century hymn formed the basis of the composition it incorporated modern musical segments, poetry, and scatting. The onomatopoeic chattering by the entire Choir towards the second half of the composition effectively evoked birdlife above Lake Menindee and played deliciously with the concepts of life and death. The composer, present during the concert and later to join the Choir for the Requiem, rightly received thunderous applause.
For the second part former choir members joined to swell the Choir number to forty, adding to the occasion and the prowess needed for the performance of the two piano version of Brahms’ German Requiem. Allegedly inspired by the deaths of the composer’s mother and his close friend, Robert Schumann, it has a sacred intent but is non-liturgical.
The piano version was particularly suited to the setting and produced a strong and warm sound that had me marvelling at the Great Hall’s acoustic qualities. But it is, of course, a choral work, and the stars were the choir and its soloists, soprano Belinda Montgomery and baritone Alexander Knight. The vocal prowess of the enlarged choir was subtly intimate when required but equally powerful in its thrilling louder sections, bestowing a tonality and energy onto this work that would not have been matched by a smaller group.
I must also mention the fine performances by pianists Anthony Hunt and Thomas Victor Johnson. They were never swamped by the choir and played in an engaging, balanced and beautifully toned manner. Lastly, I can highly recommend the excellent program notes which were, and always are, well written, detailed and highly informative.
The concert held at the Great Hall, Sydney University on Sunday 14th June was recorded by ABC Classic FM for future broadcast. The Sydney Chamber Choir are performing next at the Great Hall, Sydney University on 6 September. Try to make it along for what will be another lovely, thrilling and uplifting afternoon.