★★★★½ Edwards’ Mass of the Dreaming and Haydn’s ‘Nelson’ Mass made a moving pairing.

City Recital Hall
October 1, 2016

A chanting drone from the Sydney Chamber Choir’s bass section opened Ross Edwards’ Mass of the Dreaming: Missa Alchera, conducted by the choir’s Artistic Director Richard Gill. “My religious consciousness is more a Paleolithic one,” Edwards told me in an interview last month. “I can, as we all can, be aware of a force that binds everything together, which is totally mysterious. We’re all participants in a life force that we don’t seem to take much notice of.” This is the life force Edwards is attempting to tap into in Mass of the Dreaming, a work which draws on the Christian tradition, the Aboriginal concept of the Dreaming and Edwards own sense of spirituality and connection with the environment.

Intoned on the word “eleison” the murmuring drone could have been the sound of a didgeridoo or the throat singing of Tibetan Buddhist monks, continuing throughout the movement to support higher parts in a meditative recitation of the Latin mass.

Following the reflective Kyrie, the Gloria was more upbeat, Edwards playing on the accents and rhythmic properties of the name “Jesu Christe” before a joyful “Sancto spiritu”. Elements of plainchant infused the Sanctus, with a hint of Minimalism in Edwards’ repetitious setting of the “na” sound in “Osanna”, the choir cutting off their crescendo with slick precision. The Benedictus was a winding, modal melody in which the tenors felt slightly less secure on some of their intervals, but the sopranos shone brightly in the “miserere nobis” of the Agnus Dei before the Dona Nobis Pacem faded away quietly.

The Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra – the rebranded orchestra seventeen88 – is Gill’s other project, and the conductor gave the audience a succinct crash-course in Historically Informed Performance as the stage was reset. The period ensemble brought the warm sound of gut strings to Haydn’s Symphony No 104, the twelfth and final symphony of the composer’s wildly successful London stint. Gill lead an energetic Allegro, the characterful timbres of period wind instruments colouring an orchestral sound that buzzed with vitality. Gill made the most of the idiosyncratic quirks of Haydn’s string melodies in the Andante before bassoonist Brock Imison added his dark velvet sound to the mix, the movement almost becoming a miniature bassoon concerto. The winds feature prominently in this symphony, Imison forming a trio with Georgia Browne, whose flute solos floated gently over the strings, and Amy Power, whose penetrating oboe sound cut through the ensemble. The Menuetto was stately and boldly dramatic while the finale, opening with a drone in horns and lower strings – a motif neatly carried across from the Edwards – saw Gill and ARCO launching themselves into the vigorous string lines.

An ominously martial introduction opens Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis (generally translated as “Mass for Troubled Times”) before the choir bursts in with the first “Kyrie”. Haydn’s Mass – like the Symphony No 104 – is the work of a composer at the height of his fame and power and was composed as Napoleon carved his way through Europe, a particular concern for anyone currently living in Vienna. While the Mass has been associated with Lord Nelson’s 1798 victory against the French conqueror, Haydn (and the nervous city) couldn’t have predicted such an outcome while he was composing – the triumphant sections therefore have more an air of hopeful optimism (or desperate wards against destruction) than of celebration.

The four soloists added their unique colours to the sound of choir and the ARCO strings, bolstered with trumpets and timpani. Right from the Kyrie, Belinda Montgomery’s soprano was warm and full-bodied, with an athleticism that allowed her to dispatch Haydn’s semiquaver runs with ease. Bass soloist David Greco was a standout, his resounding lines smooth and expressive over pulsing strings and organ in the Gloria while tenor Luke Byrne’s bright tone contrasted elegantly. Alto Natalie Shea brought a sweet clarity to her solo lines, despite some slightly hesitant entries in the Agnus Dei. Playful string lines in the Dona Nobis Pacem brought the Mass to its optimistic conclusion.

Gill traced an elegant crescendo from the primal opening drone of Ross Edwards’ Mass of the Dreaming: Missa Alchera to the bright climax of Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis. The choir’s diction was generally excellent and ARCO delivered exciting, vibrant performances. Edwards’s Mass is a beautiful contribution to the genre and proved a fascinating partner to Haydn’s ‘Nelson’ Mass, creating a profoundly moving spiritual and musical experience.