Nothing makes a concert quite like a smart programme, and as programmes go this one was as cunningly constructed as they come, echoing back and forth across the centuries to give us a new-Elizabethan-eye view of an old Elizabethan England.
Even when Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote his early masterpiece the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis for the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival in 1910, the Tudor master’s Why Fum’th in Fight the Gentiles Spite could hardly have been a tune on everybody’s lips. Nowadays its an even rarer avis in the Anglican service, yet its beauty lives on thanks to RVW’s bold endeavour – one that by embracing the harmonic modes of a 16th-century musical past in its small way led one of the charges in British ‘new’ music of the early 20th century.
I guess it seems obvious, but I’ve never heard the choral version of Tallis’ original sung as a prelude to the Vaughan Williams. Sydney Philharmonia Choirs warm, solid sound slipped magically into the hushed opening string chords of the Fantasia with an effortless ease and an intensity that bridged the centuries in the space of a few seconds. With a consort of nine players on the balcony and 13 at ground level, Brett Weymark gave a perfectly shaped account of the work, the full yet detailed string sound allowing RVW’s divisions to flow over the audience like the waters of some Renaissance River Jordan. With delicious solos from Fiona Ziegler on violin, James Eccles on viola and Anthea Cottee on cello, the interplay between the two groups was compellingly handled, like prayers rising up and being echoed in heaven above. With strong, secure climaxes, this is music that tugs at the heart – and it did.
Thomas Tompkins was a fine composer who lately seems to be getting his due at last. His O Praise the Lord All Ye Heathen is a minor masterpiece and received a confidant performance from the choir, their astute arrangement – sopranos and basses aloft left and right and altos and tenors at ground level – ensuring that all 16 of Tompkins’ beautifully constructed and interlacing parts orbited the hall to maximum effect.
The first half was rounded off by Vaughan Williams’ sublime Serenade to Music, a setting of the love scene from The Merchant of Venice. Originally composed for 16 soloists, it was performed here in its version for four singers and choir, with piano complementing the strings and doing duty for absent woodwind and brass parts. One of the most beautiful choral works ever written, Weymark handled it with considerable aplomb, his choir producing a richly detailed sound to deliver RVW’s sophisticated, at times 12-part choral writing.
Of the four soloists, Queensland Con graduates Morgan Balfour – rising to radiant top B Flats on the “of sweet harmony” phrases and offering a spine-tingling “and draw her home with music” – and Bronwyn Douglass – her rich, warm tone, clear at the top, subtle at the bottom, and backed by bags of personality – stood out. Evan Kirkby has an attractive, open English tenor sound and an engaging manner, though he needs to watch pitch at the top, while Jarvis Dams’ nicely focused baritone struggled on the very bottom phrase – though RVW didn’t originally expect any one singer to have to cover lines written for four quite different voices. And credit too to Fiona Ziegler whose all-important violin solos were appealingly spun over the whole choral edifice.
The second half featured Vaughan Williams’ Five Tudor Portraits, settings of John Skelton’s ribald, often downright vulgar verse for orchestra and chorus with alto and baritone solos. The string orchestra reduction used here, with percussion added back in, works pretty darn well giving plenty of thump to underpin RVW’s unbuttoned vocal writing. Interviewing Weymark before the event, he admitted to Limelight that one reason this brilliant choral confection is still so rarely heard is that it’s “bloody virtuosic”, and he’s right.
Vaughan Williams rather shoots himself in the foot by distributing obscure words in intricate counterpoint among the four voices, and frequenty at a ridiculously demanding rate of knots. That anything comprehensible emerged from the Tunning of Elinor Rumming and the Epitaph for John Jayberd was down to the committed discipline of the choir and Weymark’s clear beat (to be honest, surtitles or a printed text would have helped many). That said, the men, in particular, showed an obvious relish for the bawdy bits, wrapping their chops around the cod-Latin and Skelton’s jubilant Rum-po-po-po-po-lorums with gay abandon. Elsewhere, the women excelled in Jane Scroop’s affecting Lament for Philip Sparrow – the glorious centrepiece of the work – their pungent harmonies, especially in the faux-Requiem, reflecting the Tallis and Tompkins heard earlier. Their precise, yet heartfelt singing provided many of the evening’s takeaway choral moments.
Both soloists did themselves proud, Douglass especially so with her pinpoint diction and a ripe sense of pathos. Drunken Alice swooped and swayed with a skilful deployment of chest voice, while poor bereaved Jane’s distress rang out crystal clear, every note and word true as iron. Hers is a voice well worth hearing more of. Dams was at his best as the prancing John Rutterkin (he wandered a bit off the line in My Pretty Bess), nailing the money notes and flinging out his final exultant “Hoyda!”.
With fine, immediate performances from choir, orchestra, soloists and conductor, this cleverly conceived concert deserved a bigger audience – especially in the perfect acoustic of City Recital hall as opposed to the swimmy old Opera House. Hopefully the Sunday afternoon rerun will deliver a few more bums on seats.
Tudor Portraits is repeated on Sunday August 27 at 2pm