Peace on Earth

(Canticum Chamber Choir/Brisbane Biralee Voices)


Music of Franz Josef Haydn, Gustav Holst, John Rutter, Benjamin Britten

St Mary’s Anglican Church, Main Street, Kangaroo Point

Shaun Pryor, treble solo

Semi-professional production

Bombarded as we are at this time of year by secular carols and the vulgarities of commercialism, it’s good to be reminded of the original meaning of the Christmas season. And many serious choirs and orchestras use the period of Advent, before we are all overwhelmed by the magnificence and glory of Christmas, to give sympathetically-minded audiences the chance to hear some of the best Christian music ever written.

Advent, which is also known in the Eastern Orthodox churches as Little Lent, is primarily a four-week season of preparation for and anticipation of the coming of the Christ Child, less sombre than the Great Lenten season with its thoughts of suffering and penitence before the triumph of Easter, so it’s an appropriate time to hear some of the gentler music that’s associated with the pre-Christmas celebration.

Gentle doesn’t have to mean soft or sentimental, though, and as usual Emily Cox, director of Canticum Chamber Choir, has chosen a varied but totally appropriate selection of music for the choir’s final concert for the year. Peace on Earth brings together music by Josef Haydn, Gustav Holst, John Rutter and Benjamin Britten, which also incorporates ancient Christmas carols from the 15th and 16th centuries, and a more sublime and refreshing concert you couldn’t hope to hear at this time of year.

The program began with Haydn’s great Te Deum (We praise thee, O God), a canticle from the early church (let’s not get involved in the complex controversy about its date of composition) that is very rarely heard now that the ancient service of Matins has been largely discontinued. Haydn’s lyrical version was composed in 1799, and the score is suitably joyous, even though the text has no direct relevance to the season, concerned as it is more with the praise of God and the glory of the Church. Originally scored for choir and orchestra, it is here performed with organ accompaniment only, to suit the simplicity of the programming – although every time I go to St Mary’s, I wish that the extraordinary talents of Christopher Wrench could be given full rein on a better instrument.

The choir was at its finest, sopranos, altos, tenors and basses clearly distinguished from each other but blending perfectly in the full choral movements, and if the male voices were a little rough in the final section “O Lord, in you have I trusted; let me never be confounded”, and seemed to miss the force of the final positive hope implicit in that text, it was a minor fault in an otherwise wonderful performance.

The choir’s next number was Gustav Holst’s version of “This have I done for my true love”, one of the loveliest of all carols, even though personally I prefer the traditional tune as sung by the Shakers in 18th century America. But Holst’s harmonies are beautiful, perfectly suited to the talents of Canticum, and the sentiments of the lyrics, where Christ as the great lover sings to his beloved people about the events of his life, concluding always with the simple refrain “This have I done for my true love”, is spiritually as well as musically uplifting.

I’d not heard the Brisbane Birralee Voices before, but this children’s choir, which has been going since 1995 and now has six different vocal ensembles, was this year honoured by the ABC FM with the award for the Australian Choir of the Year. Under their director and founder, Julie Christianson, the choir showed a discipline and control of tone that children’s choirs rarely achieve, and their voices were not the piping immature tones of immature youngsters, but showed promise of great things to come. Shaun Pryor, the treble soloist, was just as good as Aled Jones at the top of his form, and it will be a sad loss to Australian music when his voice breaks. The two carols sung by the group, John Rutter’s setting of “King Jesus hath a garden”, and the much-beloved 19th century Basque carol “The Angel Gabriel”, were sung with such perfect diction and clarity of tone that they were, unlike many children’s choirs, a joy to hear.

And then came the piece de resistance, Benjamin Britten’s early masterpiece A Boy is Born (opus 3). It’s fitting that almost exactly on the thirtieth anniversary of the composer’s death, his earliest choral work, published in 1932 when he was still a student, should take pride of place. It’s fiendishly difficult, much more so than his later and better-known A Ceremony of Carols , and even in Britten’s 1952 revision, in which he simplified the writing of the choral parts and also scored it for organ accompaniment, it combines gloriously complex music with a simplicity and lightness of tone that suits the chamber genre precisely. And precise is the word for the performance, too, for any sloppiness of rhythm or diction would have made the whole work into a mixed-up Christmas pudding rather than a selection of separate delicacies. It was a real treat to hear this, especially in the beautiful setting of St Mary’s church in Kangaroo Point.

If you’re not already a follower of Canticum, check their website for full details of next year’s concerts – their annual Good Friday Meditation at St John’s Cathedral is something you shouldn’t miss.

Directed by Emily Cox

Organ and piano, Christopher Wrench, oboe Mitchell Suchowacki

Played Saturday and Sunday 2 and 3 December 2006 at 5pm

Duration : 90 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Fri 1st December 2006)