Powerful passions run deep in Roland Peelman’s Eastertide offerings.

St Mary’s Cathedral Crypt, Sydney

April 15, 2014

For their annual Easter project, Roland Peelman and the Song Company have so far managed to avoid a performance of an actual ‘passion’ per se, preferring to come at the central message from a number of oblique, yet imaginative directions – Tenebrae chants, a Via Crucis etc. This year though they have decided to bite the bullet, and to say that they hit the nail on the head would be an understatement. This was a remarkable experience.

Peelman’s program comes at it from two different angles, roughly 400 years apart. First we have a St John Passion from Christoph Demantius, a rather obscure Lutheran composer, predating Schütz by about 20 years. A fully polyphonic, six-part a cappella work, Demantius Passion was preceded appropriately by one of his motets.

Both works were given first rate performances by the three men and three women of the Song Company, Peelman alert to every nuance and shaping each phrase with loving attention. The blend was exceptional with a terrific sense of the organic ebb and flow of the piece. The acoustic of St Mary’s Cathedral Crypt was ideal – resonant yet not so much so that anything ever got muddied or lost.

Demantius’ style owes a little to the Italian school with modest imitative word settings (a charming scattering of phrases for sheep going astray) and he sets all of his text as harmony (as opposed to Schütz, say, who often assigns the narrative to a solo voice). It’s more austere than Bach, though, and although Demantius often gives Jesus’ words to the three men, sometimes he can’t resist adding a fourth voice for sonority’s sake, lessening the dramatic consistency of his setting. Still, it was good to hear a lesser-known voice from a fascinating transitional musical period.

Fast forwarding to the 21st Century and the other main work was David Lang’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Little Match Girl Passion. It was great to see and hear this deeply felt, powerfully realised, post-minimalist masterpiece in a performance of such musical skill and integrity. Lang intersperses Hans Christian Anderson’s sentimental morality tale of a poor girl who dies of hypothermia on the streets on New Year’s Eve and then ascends to heaven, with fragments from traditional passion settings in a way that combines dramatic tale telling with reflective interludes.

Dressed as Victorian gentry, the four superb singers (Anna Fraser, Susannah Lawergren, Mark Donnelly and Richard Black) were masterful in their interpretation of this far from straight-forward score, and equally adept percussionists when required. Occupying a cruciform performance space, in Josh Armstrong’s simple yet effective staging they managed a marvellous sense of ensemble despite frequently having their backs to one another. The perfect acoustic seemed to amplify their voices, throwing them out to the audience, every word crystal clear (absolutely essential given the fragmentary nature of the text).

The singers took Lang’s open harmonies, close harmonies and dissonances, and though them conveyed a whole range of emotions – prayer, remorse, despair. The poignancy of the story in this remarkable work was at times overwhelming. The final chorus with sleigh-bells, drum, glockenspiel and crotales combined to create something rare, rich and strange.

All in all, then, something very special. If you know Lang’s work from the excellent CD version you’ll probably already be a fan, but do go and see this – it packs a real punch and it’s a uniquely haunting experience.

The Song Company performs Passion in Sydney, Newcastle, Parramatta and Melbourne until April 22.