★★★★☆ Richard Gill opens medieval windows on the sacred and profane.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
March 19, 2016

There’s no doubt that Richard Gill is a very good thing, and not just for Sydney Chamber Choir. His debut concert not only offered a smart piece of programming allowing two contrasting views of the medieval – one authentic, one seen through 20th-century eyes – but he also managed to commission three young Australian composers into the bargain, enlist the aid of 70 highly impressive young singers from schools across New South Wales, and all the while inspiring his crack choir to pull off a pair of fine performances of music by Guillaume Machaut and Carl Orff.

Machaut’s Messe de Notre Dame is a Marian mass ie. one specially intended to celebrate the life of the Virgin as opposed to one designed for the famous Paris cathedral. Written around 1365, it’s the first polyphonic mass to have come down to us with a composer’s name attached, and it exhibits many of the buoyant and innovative musical ideas that were to develop over the following two centuries before the Reformation put paid to the idea of music for music’s sake within the confines of the Church. Not that Machaut was committing the crime of obscuring his texts with musical overload – far from it, the words come over loud and clear – but his mass is bursting with little inventive touches that lend it variety, energy and an in-built sense of joy.

A group like Sydney Chamber Choir embraces repertoire from the medieval to the contemporary, and while they nod stylistically to period, they don’t indulge in the more extreme practices employed by some European ensembles that can make this music sound like its being sung by malnourished monks or highly-sexed Bulgarian peasant women. It’s a ‘straight’ sound, then, but in some ways an ideal one for revealing the delicate inner workings of the music given that they are six or so to a part. A crisp, clean timbre – and at Gill’s lively pace, a necessarily nimble one – they exhibited just enough of that open-toned sound to help clarify the tricky melismas and agile syncopations with which the music is laced.

The indulgent triple-repeated Kyrie sprang to life loud and clear, details to the fore, while the Gloria and Credo with their focus on textual story-telling revelled in the kind of diatonic harmonies that make Poulenc’s sacred music such a tangy throw back. The Amens of each, with their ebullient hockettings, were deliciously swung. The choir was palpably attentive throughout, clearly enjoying the energetic communion with their new chief. Michael Paton, Olivia Swift and Josephine Gibson’s brief, competent compositions on Marian themes were a novel idea and gave pause for thought, though none screamed “hat’s off gentlemen, a genius”.

The second half was devoted to a 20th-century German’s view of the scurrilous poems of the medieval Goliards – those under-employed, over-educated clerics whose rollicking poems of life, love and the pursuit of alcohol still raise a smile today. Carmina Burana is a big work, scored for full orchestra and large chorus, but it was Orff himself who produced a reduction for two pianos and percussion, one which deserves to be heard more often, especially as there’s really only one moment (the trumpet fanfares before the concluding chorus of the first half) where you really miss the full band. Instead, you get a much better chance to hear Orff’s harmonic and rhythmic experimentation, and you certainly get a lot more out of the words of the poems themselves, several of which turn out to have considerably more literary merit than you might have suspected.

Adding the 70 or so voices of the NSW Public Schools Senior Singers to the mix was an act that might have been expected to dilute the ‘professional’ sound of the choir, but not a bit of it. Singing with confidence, flair and evident passion they bolstered their colleagues at every turn. According to a pre-show announcement, Richard Gill played one of the two pianos under Orff himself, so his brisk, no-nonsense reading can be assumed to have a degree of imprimatur. Tempi were fast, very occasionally tongue-trippingly so, but there was plenty of light and shade in the languid pastoral imagery of the In the Meadows and The Court of Love sequences. Perhaps most crucially, the choir genuinely seemed to be having a ball, and that sense of excitement came across loud and clear. The same could be said of the impressive Splash Percussion and the two pianists Chris Cartner and Katherine Day.

A list of highlights would have to include the excellent soprano/alto duets in Floret Silva Nobilis culminating in some ravishing high “Ah!”s (sopranos were equally glorious, entering fearlessly on the exposed top B of Blanziflor et Helena) and the fresh girls’ voices in Amor Volat Undique. But for sheer adrenalin it would be hard to beat the sequence from Circa Mea Pectora (choir and orchestra firing on all cylinders) through the men’s superbly lascivious Si Puer Cum Puella, the plunge into a heady Veni, Veni, Venias and a joyous Tempus Est Jocundum.

The small tenor and soprano solos were cast effectively from out of the choir, but for the more substantial baritone solos SSC picked Alexander Knight, a young singer who has impressed of late with both Sydney Chamber Opera and Pacific Opera. His virile, focussed tone was perfect for Orff’s often taxing solos and his attention to words and their meanings was a revelatory pleasure. Acting his socks off, perhaps there was a moment or two where less might have been more, but he certainly raised a smile and drew his audience into this jolly world of love, lust and beer with some splendidly confidential singing.

This was an imaginative concert, delivered with real enthusiasm by a fine bunch of singers. Over and above the excellent contribution of SCC, this level of competence and youthful enthusiasm bodes very well for the future of choral singing in Australia. More power to Mr Gill.