The Song Company’s ten singers were humming a chant melody as they walked – processed, even – into the Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room for the company’s latest concert exploring manuscripts from Oxford University’s Digital Image Archive of Mediaeval Music. The melody – soon given the words “Jesus autem transiens” – plunged the audience into the medieval sound world of Treble Helix Unlocked: The Eton Choirbook at the crossroads of the Renaissance. It was also, it transpired, an aural primer for the chant’s return in a far more complex form as the program’s finale.
The Song Company. Photo supplied
Treble Helix Unlocked centred on music from the Eton Choirbook, a large manuscript compiled around 1500 at Eton College, which has fascinated Artistic Director Antony Pitts for several decades. He described this tour – and the research and experimentation that went into preparing it – as a “quest to unlock the musical DNA” of the Eton Choirbook. With the singers standing close around facsimiles on just a few music stands, seeking to recreate the conditions in which the Choirbook’s original singers may have read those pages, the concert opened with Walter Lambe’s Nesciens Mater. The choir brought a lean yet vibrantly alive sound, and clear diction, to the music – and in the intimate Utzon Room it felt as though the audience, too, were huddled around the manuscript. With this first work celebrating the Virgin Mary, the concert traced a spiritual narrative across the life of Christ, with William, Monk of Stratford’s Magnificat following, highlighting the alternating colours of men’s and women’s voices. While the singers unravelled at one point – “part of the performance practice journey is learning how to cope when things go wrong,” Pitts explained afterwards – the final “Amen” blazed.
Dan Walker brought a clean, articulate tenor to the Evangelist in Richard Davy’s St Matthew Passion, the first Passion setting in musical history by a named composer, his solo narration contrasting the denser polyphony of the spoken lines – the crowd’s cries of “Barrabam” and “Crucifigatur” particularly thrilling. While the Utzon Room’s close quarters make any real pianissimos difficult to pull off, the stripped-back texture as bass Andrew O’Connor sung his “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?) was quite moving.
The highlight of the program, however, was John Browne’s Stabat mater dolorosa, the singers drawing a ringing sound from the music’s weaving lines in a deft thematic shift from the Passion’s description of the women watching from afar to Christ’s mother at the foot of the cross. The contrasting timbres of soprano (Roberta Diamond) and bass (O’Connor) in the “Quis non potest contristari” (Who could not sorrow with her) were beautiful, while the blooming word-painting of the “Stabat mater rubens rosa” (The mother stood, a reddening rose) and the powerful “Plebs tunc canit clamorosa” (The crowd roared cacophonously) were exquisite.
The concert’s finale saw the return of Jesus autem transiens, Robert Wylkynson’s canonic setting of the Apostles Creed’ for 13 voices (one for each Apostle plus Christ), rendered here in ten voices, the parts accumulating to create an impenetrable, seething – yet ultimately resplendent – wall of sound.
Treble Helix Unlocked was an ambitious program (last year’s Byrd Round Table, drawing on the Dow Partbooks, was “nursery slopes” in comparison, Pitts quipped) and while there was an edge of danger to performances in which much is decided in the moment and communicated with hand gestures, it made for a rewarding performance. It will no doubt become even more so with repeat performances and in venues with a little more breathing space.
The Song Company tours Treble Helix Unlocked until March 2