Elena Kats-Chernin channels Bach and beyond for the ABO’s 25th birthday bash.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney

February 19, 2014

It was 25 years ago that Paul Dyer lead the first Australian Brandenburg Orchestra concert at the Sydney Opera House – a gig that was so overwhelming, he recounted, that he fainted in the wings before the curtain call and had to be revived with a handful of sugar. Last night’s anniversary concert at Angel Place was happily ‘sweet’ enough for Mr Dyer to get through it all without the need for artificial stimulants.

The celebratory mood was set with two of Bach’s most joyful occasional pieces, his magnificent Magnificat and the last of his rousing Orchestral Suites. The icing on the cake however was a commission from Dyer’s contemporary and friend, Russian-Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin, who channelled her inner Bach in a work intriguingly entitled Prelude and Cube, written for the exact same forces as Bach’s choral masterpiece – plus soprano saxophone!

The Magnificat was superbly sung by the excellent 30-strong Australian Brandenburg Choir who produced a warm, sophisticated blend throughout and were unfazed by Bach’s ‘take-no-prisoners’ approach to the complex contrapuntal textures and catlike vocal dexterity required in the upbeat sections. The Omnes generationes movement was genuinely thrilling, the final Gloria full, firm and fleet of foot. Dyer leapt from music-stand to harpsichord in order to conduct both chorus and orchestra and was spot on in his pacing, ensuring that the jubilant sections achieved maximum uplift while giving space to the reflective solos, duets and ensembles that Bach offers as musical relief.

The Magnificat isn’t really a showcase for soloists but the four in the program (Jane Sheldon, Maximilian Riebl, Richard Butler and Nick Gilbert), plus a nice additional unnamed soprano from the choir, were never less than capable. Perhaps the loveliest moments fell to Riebl who displayed a rich and radiant countertenor voice with a bell-like purity that reminded me at times of the young Andreas Scholl.

The orchestra were generally excellent – the recorder duet that underpinned Riebl’s aria about “filling the hungry with good things” was a standout. Only the trumpets seemed problematical (and it pains me to say this as Bach sets them such tricky hoops to jump through), experiencing trouble at the treacherous top of the range and suffering from intonation problems in some of the gentler sections.

Happily the Orchestral Suite No 4 that kicked off the second half saw all wind and brass return to form. The playing throughout was excellent from the crisply articulated overture to the lively bourées (taken at quite a lick). The graceful and shapely menuets took us through to an appropriately joyous concluding Réjouissance.

The grand finale was the Elena Kats-Chernin commission, Prelude and Cube, a crowd-pleaser if ever there was one. It built its themes gradually from a series of Bachian ostinatos, heading for the first glorious entry of the soprano saxophone, which generally soared over the rest of the band. The choir then added some whacky nonsense lyrics before the second climax and the singing of the Magnificat opening, this time in German. The second part of the work was more overtly minimalist – reminiscent at times of Glass in his 1980s mode with the sax giving it just a dash of Michael Nyman ­– which isn’t meant to lessen the originality of Kats-Chernin’s vision. It had many highly imaginative touches, from slap-bass solos to funky chamber organ riffs, giving the baroque players a chance to let their hair down. Happy Birthday ABO indeed!

Bach Magnificat runs in Sydney and Melbourne until March 1.