Featuring the Australian premiere of Telemann’s Thunder Ode and an opportunity to hear Bach’s all-too-rarely-performed Easter Oratorio, this concert was not only offering an attractive program, but a chance for Melbourne audiences to experience the phenomenon that is Pinchgut Opera. All aspects of this enterprise are to be applauded. Over the years since its inception, many Melburnians have travelled to Sydney to attend Pinchgut productions, so it is heartening to see the company making overtures in a southerly direction. (This is Pinchgut’s second Melbourne concert thus far.)

Alexandra Oomens, Anna Dowsley, Richard Butler, Erin Helyard, David Greco, Andrew O’Connor and the Orchestra of the Antipodes in Pinchgut Opera’s Bach and Telemann. Photo © Albert Comper

Erin Helyard and his musical co-conspirators did not disappoint. Telemann’s Thunder Ode was written in the wake of the massive earthquake that devastated Lisbon in 1755. Using paraphrases of various biblical texts (most notably Psalm 29) Telemann takes delight in evoking the glory of God as seen in the storm; with the shattering of the cedars of Lebanon and the voice of God thundering forth. To this end, Telemann provides a solo role for the timpani – an historic first.

Cast in two parts, the Ode is framed by a Hymn, Wie ist dein Name so Gross for chorus and orchestra set in grand style. The rest of the music proceeds in a fairly direct manner – once Telemann has set his scene, he tends not to wallow in it or feel the need for a mandatory da capo. Pinchgut performs the work with a consort of five young voices (soprano, mezzo, tenor and two basses). Using one voice to a part works well here, not only because it resonates with historical practice, but also because the work has a minimal role for chorus.

Under Helyard’s direction the Orchestra of the Antipodes play with enviable energy, colour and precision, as well as providing sensitive accompaniment to the singers. Telemann is remarkably even-handed in the distribution of solo vocal opportunities. Soprano, Alexandra Oomens impresses with her full yet clear tone in her two arias and is nicely complemented by mezzo Anna Dowsley. Richard Butler’s light tenor is enviably agile. Basses David Greco and Andrew O’Connor project well together in the thundery conclusion to Part One. Timpanist Brian Nixon and trumpeter Richard Fomison relish their dramatic contributions to Telemann’s grand vision.

Pinchgut OperaAlexandra Oomens, Anna Dowsley, Richard Butler and the Orchestra of the Antipodes in Pinchgut Opera’s Bach and Telemann. Photo © Albert Comper

With Bach’s Easter Oratorio we enter into a more musically refined and spiritually introspective world, allowing some of Pinchgut’s other strengths to shine. Helyard is very much in tune with Bach’s depiction of the journey of Easter from despair to joy. After the grandeur of the opening Sinfonia, the sombre intensity of the Adagio comes as a shock, but the beguiling oboe playing of Amy Power puts the music into a very special class. (Power’s contribution to the well sung alto aria, Saget, saget mir geschwinde was also first-rate.) Bach’s instrumental writing also allowed other players expressive scope, including Melissa Farrow on flute and recorder. Cellist, Anton Baba collaborated well with Helyard on continuo.

Arriving at the empty tomb, Oomens, Dowsley, Butler and Greco each play their assigned role in the story with conviction, both in recitatives and arias. Butler sings the famous slumber aria with admirable technical control, although at times I could have wished for slightly greater vocal heft not only to balance the aria’s double recorder obbligato but to balance the vocal quartet generally, but this is a very minor caveat in the face of excellent music making.

How satisfying to see and hear this fine group of players and singers in the splendid acoustics of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall of Melbourne Recital Centre. Who said you can’t have the best of Sydney and Melbourne together? More please, and soon!