Ancient and Modern Ceremony of Carols
The West Australian December 2021, by David Cusworth
This glowing review is available to West Australian subscribers at the following link: https://thewest.com.au/entertainment/art/joseph-nolan-directs-sonus-angelorum-and-harpist-yi-yun-loei-in-a-ceremony-of-carols-at-st-georges-cathedral-c-4801409
A Ceremony of Carols: Britten and Gardiner
Limelight December 2021, by Laura Biemmi
The St George’s Cathedral Concert Series gave its audience an early Christmas gift this year: the inaugural performance of Sonus Angelorum, a new professional upper voice female choir based at the cathedral. Accompanied by renowned Australian harpist Yi-Yun Loei and directed by Artistic Director Dr Joseph Nolan, Sonus Angelorum placed the female voice – both physical and authorial – at the forefront of the performance. Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols was paired with young Perth composer Lydia Gardiner’s A New Ceremony of Carols, with Gardiner borrowing the text of the former to create a work every bit as complex and moving as Britten’s.
Go to the following link to read the complete review (Limelight subscription required): https://limelightmagazine.com.au/reviews/a-ceremony-of-carols-britten-and-gardiner-sonus-angelorum-st-georges-cathedral/
Joseph Nolan - A Rare Opportunity
Limelight 2021, by Marilyn Phillips
Compositions from the Baroque to Romantic periods provided an ideal opportunity for soloist Joseph Nolan to demonstrate the organ of St George’s Cathedral in all its glory, with video screens enhancing the visual effect.
The program opened with the Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, composed by Bach in his early twenties. Originally a stately Spanish dance form, the passacaglia of this work lends itself to adaptation and transcription. The tradition of playing the Bach keyboard works throughout in organo pleno (full organ) was widely followed during the composer’s lifetime. However, today’s organists usually favour a wider range of colours, and these contrasting timbres were brought to life in a splendid performance by Nolan.
Modulated dynamics of the work were shaded impressively. Marginal rubati in the presentation of the main theme were perhaps questionable, but the clarity of the subject was never in doubt. The majestic main theme dominated, before developing into clearly executed semiquavers.
The Julius Reubke Sonata, long regarded as one of the finest works for organ in the classical repertoire, is included in the repertoire of most concert organists. The Sonata was completed while Reubke was under the guidance of Liszt, who regarded him as one of his favourite pupils.
Reubke is regarded as a relatively obscure composer, possibly due to his early death at just 24 years of age and to his resultant small output of works, mainly for piano and organ. The Sonata on the 94th Psalm displays intriguing harmonic invention, revealing Wagnerian influences and stylistic indications of Liszt’s keyboard works. The three connected movements reflect the text of the 94th Psalm, using all components of the instrument. Under Nolan’s assured playing the listener was challenged by contrasting moods and emotions, with the peaceful introduction leading to dense anguished chords. Nolan displayed the wide palette of moods with impressive chromatic pedal dexterity, and the closing fugue depicting victory over evil was welcome after the preceding adagio.
Charles-Valentin Alkan is known mainly for his output of piano compositions, including a symphony and a concerto for solo piano. Also highly regarded as a pianist, Alkan’s works require extraordinary keyboard technique and stamina, The Impromptu on Luther’s Un fort rempart est notre Dieu (A Mighty Fortress is our God) being no exception. The work was given its Australian premiere in this recital, and Nolan demonstrated the complex polyrhythms and fugal counterpoint without allowing the original theme to be lost. The reappearance of this theme later in the work suggested a fairground-organ pastiche before the challenging fugal chorale finale, which was executed with aplomb.
The unusually-titled ‘symphony’ for one instrument was introduced by Charles Widor, the leading organ recitalist of the 19th century. Modern instruments have an orchestral array of voices enabling the truly symphonic sound to be experienced, and the ten Widor Symphonies for organ demonstrate this wide range. The fifth symphony has the popular finale, beloved of wedding ceremonies and ceremonial occasions. The opening martial allegro led to the Mendelssohn-like second movement, a gentle engaging theme poignantly expressed on the hautbois. The distinct moods of all movements led to the popular flamboyant Toccata finale. Widor himself disliked the fast tempi set by other organists in this movement, his own recording being quite slow. The tempo chosen in this recital was justifiably faster than that recorded by an aged Widor when he was in his nineties.
An encore of the Toccata was warmly received, although a contrasting work could have been considered. Overall this was an evening much enjoyed by an enthusiastic and appreciative Perth audience.
Easter (Oratorio) Arrives in Perth
Seesaw 2021, by Rosalind Appleby
The St George’s Cathedral Consort expands the musical horizon for West Australians in this Holy Week collaboration with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.
It’s no secret that Perth boasts one of the best choirs in the country. The reputation of the St George’s Cathedral Consort precedes them and the group, directed by Joseph Nolan, have significantly expanded the performance of sacred choral repertoire in Perth.
This week the choir partnered with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra for what was most likely the West Australian premiere of Bach’s Easter Oratorio, and the WASO premiere of Durufle’s Requiem.
They were joined by Australia’s leading Baroque soloists Fiona Campbell, Sara Macliver, Paul McMahon and James Clayton. Not surprisingly, the Concert Hall (now operating at the increased 75% capacity allowance) was sold out, its foyers teeming with people.
The performance was dedicated to Perth-born soprano Taryn Fiebig who died last month. It was a fitting tribute, opening with Durufle’s hauntingly beautiful Requiem, before moving to Bach’s more hopeful depiction of Jesus’ Easter Sunday resurrection.
Durufle’s Requiem (1947) reflects his liturgical background (he was primarily an organist at various Paris cathedrals in the early 20th century), and draws heavily on Gregorian Chant. But it is invested with contemporary harmony and textures and is an almost giddy mix of reassurance and arresting grimness. It can be performed with or without orchestral accompaniment, and we heard the version for choir and organ which seemed a shame, given the orchestra were in the building!
However the opportunity to hear Stewart Smith on the Concert Hall pipe organ more than compensated. Durufle’s virtuosic organ writing demands rippling figures in the upper register over dense chordal harmonies and underpinned by complicated plain chant melodies on the pedals. Smith worked non-stop, negotiating the rapid changes in texture and volume to give us a vibrant, emotionally compelling performance.
Together with Nolan, they exploited Durufle’s harmonic moodiness, sculpting contrasts between different movements and, on a micro level, within small phrases. The “Domine” was particularly startling with its pentatonic harmony given extra exoticism thanks to Stewart Smith’s reedy tone on the Concert Hall pipe organ and Clayton’s baritone solo ringing out with full-throated magnificence.
Campbell’s mezzo soprano solo explored the full expressive trajectory of the “Pie Jesu”, moving from dark wondering to radiant worship. There were moments where the pristine singing of the 23 piece Consort was swamped by the organ, however the choir had the final say for “In Paradisum”, its opening melody sung with angelic clarity before both organ and choir blended for a languid descent into Durufle’s final and weighty depiction of rest.
The orchestra joined the choir for Bach’s Easter Oratorio (1725). This piece is less well-known than Bach’s other sacred works and offers less of a dramatic narrative, but Bach had an incredible ability to paint with sound, and Nolan is a master at highlighting his most vivid colours.
WASO’s three trumpeters stood to deliver the bristling fanfare of the opening “Sinfonia”, and the effect was electrifying. Nolan’s almost break-neck speed for “Come, hasten and run”, showcased the nimbleness of the Consort singers (although any sense of natural sentence structure was lost by the extreme emphasis on the first beat of every bar), while McMahon’s muted aria “My death throes shall be gentle” murmured along like a lullaby.
As the work unfolded it provided opportunity to feature orchestral soloists including Liz Chee, whose oboe solo in the “Adagio” was a creamy, lyrical delight. The discourse between flautist Andrew Nicholson and soprano Macliver was elegantly persuasive, their lines dovetailing with exquisite tenderness. Leanne Glover’s energised cor anglais playing drove the aria “Tell me, tell me quickly” along with gusto, punctuated by a moment of utter sadness as Campbell captured Mary’s sense of abandonment.
It was wonderful to witness the depth of talent as the orchestral players explored music outside their standard repertoire. Nolan draws exceptional commitment and passion from his musicians and this concert was no exception.
Stars Align to Offer a Powerful Passion
The Australian 2019, by Rosalind Appleby
It has been 33 years since the West Australian Symphony Orchestra last performed Bach's St Matthew Passion. The St George's Cathedral Consort has presented it more recently in an acclaimed performance in 2015. On Tuesday, the two groups were brought together under the baton of Joseph Nolan for a much-anticipated Holy Week performance.
How would the WASO players, drilled in the romantic repertoire by Asher Fisch, mesh with the consort's crisp and pure baroque choral sound? From the opening notes it was clear Nolan had found cohesion. The 30-piece WASO played with the transparency of a baroque ensemble but with the fullness of modern instruments, underpinned by the sweetness of Stewart Smith's organ continuo and matched by the consort singing with golden warmth.
The arrangement of players and singers on stage - with double orchestra and double chorus grouped symmetrically on either side of the organ - highlighted the antiphonal nature of Bach's writing but was rhythmically unwieldy. Players lagged and Nolan's typically buoyant propulsion was missed at times.
But Nolan has an unerring dramatic instinct and this Passion also had moments of fragility and power.
Nolan's arrangement trimmed the three-hour work to two, mainly by taking a large chunk (the Anointing and Last Supper scenes) from the first half. The famous crucifixion aria Ach, Golgotha was also absent but otherwise the streamlined narrative packed dramatic punch.
Also heightening the drama were the chorales, performed unaccompanied, with Bach's twisting harmonies and word painting, and the consort's trademark precision and passion. The chorus Sind Blitze, sind Donner ("Have lightning and thunder from Heaven all vanished?") had palpable terror.
The lyrical meditations interspersed with Bible passages provided rich emotional material for the soloists. Soprano Sara Macliver floated through a heart-stopping version of Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben supported by a woodwind trio. The urgent warmth of Fiona Campbell's Erbarme dich was equally enthralling. Tenor Paul McMahon sang with pained rawness and vehemence as the Evangelist; Andrew Foote brought supple gravitas to the role of Jesus; and James Clayton sang the roles of Peter and Pilate with presence.
Russian Choral Classic a Song of Ice and Fire
The West Australian 2018, by William Yeoman
Written in 1915 and first performed that year, Rachmaninov's Vespers, or, more properly, All-Night Vigil, is one of the crowning glories of Russian Orthodox choral music.
Liturgically the All-Night Vigil is sung between sunrise and sunset. But Rachmaninov's combining traditional chant with a more romantic use of antiphony, register, texture and harmony makes for a thrilling concert work.
As it did on Thursday night, when St George's Cathedral Consort under the direction of Joseph Nolan delivered a performance that combined the purity and evanescence of snow with a red-hot intensity. Of course, these are not Russian singers. Russian choirs, especially their basses, exhibit a richness and authenticity that's hard to beat.
But it's not a question of cultural appropriation - it's one of respect for the composer. Nolan's solution - and here one could compare the approach of English chamber choirs such as Nigel Short's Tenebrae - was to produce as clean and immaculate an interpretation as possible so as to unleash the score's inherent power.
Thus nothing was forced. Yet the effect was musically and emotionally overwhelming.
The opening Come, Let Us Worship was rousing yet solemn. Bless The Lord, O My Soul - boasting a highly expressive, dark-toned mezzo soloist in Fiona Campbell - brought those lovely contrasts between the dark lower and ethereal upper voices so magnificently to the fore.
Tenor Perry Joyce was the affecting, eloquent soloist for the Nunc Dimittis, which Rachmaninov wanted sung at his funeral, while further on The Great Doxology - when a part of Matins, sung as the sun rises - bathed the cathedral in an effulgence of sound.
Normally a congregation would stand during the closing section. Here, the audience leapt to their feet at the end, applauding this radiant finish to St George's 2018 concert series and celebration of the 130th anniversary of the cathedral's consecration.
The West Australian 2013, by William Yeoman
A famous yoga teacher once said (and I paraphrase from memory here) imprecision was an impiety. The same could be said about the performance of sacred music — or indeed any music of real quality. It’s not a question of honouring God; it’s a question of honouring the composer, the audience, fellow musicians and, of course, yourself.
But precision is only half the story. And that’s where a performer such as organist and St George’s Cathedral master of the choristers Joseph Nolan comes in. His is a precision born of passion, commitment and, yes, a sense of honour.
Which is why Tuesday night’s performance of Handel’s sacred masterpiece Messiah was such an unqualified triumph. Although performed with reduced forces approximating those Handel used in Dublin in 1742, the effect was as overwhelming, if not more so, than that of a more usual larger choir and orchestra.
So: nine string players using baroque instruments and bows; two natural trumpets and timpani; a harpsichord and chamber organ (Stewart Smith in fine form); a 16-voice choir.
The venerable soloists will be no strangers to Perth audiences: soprano Sara Macliver, mezzo Fiona Campbell, tenor Paul McMahon and bass Andrew Foote. As Sandra Bowdler points out in her excellent program notes: “There is no such thing as a definitive Messiah.” And perhaps there is no such thing as a definitive performance of Messiah. But this one must have come pretty damn close.
Nolan is always an animated conductor, yet his gestures are never superfluous or showy. Neither are the resulting musical gestures.
Choruses already replete with startling word-painting such as His yoke is easy, his burden is light, All we like sheep, Surely, He hath borne our griefs, Let us break their bonds, Hallelujah and the majestic finale Worthy is the Lamb that was slain with its magnificent “Amen” were characterised by absolute clarity of diction, fluid, highly articulated runs, radiant textural and chordal balance and spine-tingling climaxes.
Each soloist was equally impressive. Macliver’s refulgent Rejoice, sung here in the dancing 12/8 triplet version, was a real highlight, while Campbell’s He was despised, by contrast glowed with a transfigured bitterness that was very effecting.
McMahon’s rich, flexible tenor announced its expressive eloquence immediately in the opening recitative Comfort ye and air Ev’ry valley; the heightened drama of Foote’s Why do the nations was almost a set-piece in itself.
Throughout, leader Paul Wright and his fellow string players adopted a pungent, vibrato-less string tone that accentuated the texture of the part-writing while providing a telling foil to the mellowness of the organ, the brightness of the harpsichord and brass and the sharp, hard thunder of Tim White’s timpani.
This was uncompromising musicianship of the highest order. It’s just a pity more people weren’t present to hear it.
The West Australian 2012, by Neville Cohn
A choral compilation well off the beaten track provided fascinating listening at the weekend.
Working in conjunction with Heritage Australia, St George's Cathedral Consort performed US composer Morten Lauridsen's setting of Lux Aeterna against a changing backdrop of colour photographs of Perth featuring unexpected and quirky angles, a facade here, a portal there, the boathouse at Crawley Edge and novel perspectives of some of the city's houses of worship - as well as the garishly lit facade of Council House situated across the road from St George's Cathedral.
But here, it was the music that mattered most.
And what fascinating and often moving material it was, the manifold beauties of the writing inspired to a significant degree by the composer's powerful attraction to words.
I particularly liked his setting of the Agnus Dei; its quiet, supplicatory mood was evoked with very real artistry.
Here, as elsewhere, Stewart Smith's organ accompaniment was a model of discreet musicianship. Throughout the evening, Joseph Nolan, master of the choristers, presided over events to fine effect.
An account of Pizzetti's a cappella setting of Messa di Requiem gave us singing to savour with phrase after meticulously shaped phrase in an unusually lengthy Dies Irae. It came across with impeccable internal tonal balance and splendidly clear diction.
Often the best gifts come in the tiniest packages and this was the case in the two choral miniatures that book-ended the evening. Lux Aeterna, set to the music of Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations, and Samuel Barber's ubiquitous Adagio, heard here in the far less frequently encountered setting of the Agnus Dei, were sung in a way that would surely have moved the most indifferent of listeners.
Another delight in miniature was Victoria's Alma Redemptoris Mater in which the choristers responded to the composer's inspired polyphony in often-hushed terms which, in its quiet way, was so much more moving than many a more bombastic utterance.
Choral Ensemble Debut with World Premiere
Seesaw December 2021, by Rosalind Appleby
The concert series at St George’s Cathedral regularly attracts a full house, but in this case the prospect of a new work by Lydia Gardiner performed by new vocal ensemble Sonus Angelorum meant the concert sold out weeks in advance.
The program opened with Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, a setting of ten Middle English carols written in 1942 for treble voices and harp. The work has an archaic simplicity, using clean harmonies that resonate openly. It is often performed by a children’s choir but it made the perfect debut for the Sonus Angelorum, which features the 15 female singers from the Cathedral Consort. The sageness of the women, not to mention the extraordinarily accurate pitch and pure blend of their voices, made for a stunning performance.
Go to the following link to read the complete review: https://www.seesawmag.com.au/2021/12/choral-ensemble-debut-with-world-premiere
Bach's Easter Oratorio
The West Australian 2021, by David Cusworth
After a year when Baroque offered hope from a time before vaccines, Bach’s Easter Oratorio loomed like much-needed balm.
But it was the opener, Maurice Durufle’s Requiem, that most closely channelled the zeitgeist at Perth Concert Hall, with WA Symphony Orchestra and St George’s Cathedral Consort, on Wednesday night.
The evening was also dedicated to the late WA soprano Taryn Fiebig — a solemn gesture to deepen the mood.
Devotional awe ran through the opening Introit, crystalline choral setting offset by rolling lines in Stewart Smith’s organ playing; song lines dramatically duplicated then swollen by accompaniment.
Kyrie lightened the mood, the rise and fall of dynamics and register deftly controlled by St George’s Cathedral artistic director Joseph Nolan; deeply comforting in the cadence.
Domine Jesu Christe dawned more darkly in choir and accompaniment, its plea for departed souls a reminder that death was not the end in the Gregorian Mass which frames Durufle’s text.
James Clayton’s rich baritone underlined the theme, a vision of authority high in the choir stalls above the auditorium evoking dignity and power.
Sanctus returned to joy in rippling organ and limpid female voices, Smith especially tight on dynamics, rising with the ensemble to towering harmonies in the Hosannas.
Mezzo Fiona Campbell then stood to intone Pie Jesu; an elemental message and voice like a force of nature, matching deep resonance in the organ with strength and purpose, the refrain “Requiem” (Peace) a pin-drop moment honoured by a long pause.
Choir returned for Agnus Dei and Lux Aeterna, reinforcing the plea for peace in worshipful mode before Libera Me summoned the pivotal point.
Clayton’s baritone evoked the “dies irae” (day of wrath), contending with the organ for mastery as man against fate; naming the great fear to summon anguish in all voices, a genuinely troubled mood.
Finally, Paradisum claimed the eternal promise, elegant simplicity in vocal setting sublimely sustaining complex chords.
After the interval, Bach rang out with pure Baroque brilliance in trumpets, picked up by woodwind and returned; clear, spare setting again a strength, with contrapuntal drama and brass flourishes a world away from Durufle’s post-World War II mourning.
Here Nolan’s choice of organ-only setting for the Requiem was rewarded in the Oratorio’s sudden explosion of orchestral celebration.
Adagio followed, a cool change with Liz Chee’s mordantly meditative oboe surrounded by cut-glass clarity in strings; a reflection of Good Friday, perhaps, before trumpets returned in the chorus “Come, hasten and run” — bright waves of sound scurrying like the disciples to confront the Easter mystery.
Soprano Sara Macliver and tenor Paul McMahon then joined Campbell and Clayton in the recitative link to the first Aria.
Andrew Nicholson’s flute rang out as Macliver moved centre stage to summon soaring spiritual strains; two experts in emotive exposition duetting over chordal accompaniment which morphed to melodic and back, organ a subtle background colour with deep strings.
Another recitative link introduced McMahon’s Aria, rushing excitement in strings to contrast with a tender vocal rendition, weeping at the tomb; the pastoral origins of Bach’s composition especially clear in voice and woodwind, deliciously fresh in conclusion.
Recitative and Arioso in soprano and mezzo brought an operatic duo together, beautifully balanced in passion and power.
Suitably warmed, Campbell’s lush tones then evoked Mary in the Garden, a heartfelt plea for fulfilment resonating lyrically with Leanne Glover’s cor anglais.
A final Recitative link in baritone led into the concluding Chorus, trumpets bursting back on the scene with “Praise and Thanks”, intense and precise in all parts of choir and orchestra.
Bach's Easter Oratorio
Limelight 2021, by Marilyn Phillip
The Perth Concert Hall provided a fitting setting in Holy Week for the performance of the Duruflé Requiem and Bach’s Easter Oratorio, with St George’s Cathedral Consort accompanied by a reduced West Australian Symphony Orchestra directed by Joseph Nolan.
The Duruflé Requiem has a well-crafted flowing modal style. Regarded as an organ pedagogue, Maurice Duruflé published only 11 works. This composition was premiered in 1947 using the Latin texts of the Requiem Mass, omitting the Dies Irae. The overall mood is calm and meditative, with intermittent bursts of drama reminding us of the message in the Mass requesting repose for the soul. Duruflé possessed an unparalleled understanding of harmony and Gregorian Chant. Together with the irregular pulse of the vocal writing this produces an almost mesmeric vocal line. Unlike the Fauré Requiem and despite its rare grace and beauty, the harmonic writing in the score might initially be considered unappealing, but the haunting feel of the work demands further listening.
In this performance, we heard the organ accompaniment version, with sensitive accompaniment from Stewart Smith. Although the solo lines can be sung by the appropriate choral section, in this evening’s concert they were performed by mezzo-soprano Fiona Campbell and bass James Clayton, providing a welcome contrast to the choral texture. The soloists sang from the upper choir stalls of the Perth Concert Hall, giving a less effective dynamic impression than a closer placement might have achieved.
The Duruflé gave the 22 voices of the St George’s Cathedral Consort an opportunity to demonstrate their skills, with controlled shading offering appropriate drama when required. Occasional balance issues with the organ in more dramatic passages were apparent, but the inner balance of the ensemble was captured elegantly and the intimacy of the work was always apparent.
The work on which Bach’s Easter Oratorio is based dates from 1725 when he was cantor at St Thomas’ Church in Leipzig. The text is believed to have been written by the poet Christian Friedrich Henrici, who had begun his collaboration with Bach only a few months before the oratorio was conceived. Originally composed as a cantata for Easter Sunday in April 1725, the work was revised and given its new title in 1735. In contrast to other Bach oratorios there is no narrator, with the four characters Simon Peter (tenor Paul McMahon) John the Apostle (baritone James Clayton), Mary Magdalene (alto Fiona Campbell) and Mary Jacobi (soprano Sara Macliver) each relating the story of the Resurrection.
The Easter Oratorio is less familiar than Bach’s settings of the Passions of St Matthew and St John, possibly because most of the material was composed for earlier works and not necessarily for Easter. This adaptation of earlier works, known as ‘parodies’, was not uncommon since it allowed the composer more time to meet the considerable musical demands of Holy Week.
The work is a celebration of the Resurrection, reflected in the spirited mood of many of the movements and captured in an exemplary fashion by the WASO trumpet section. The opening chorus Kommt, Eilet und Laufet, describing the excitement of the discovery of the opened tomb, was reflected in the vocal clarity of the St George’s Cathedral Consort with soloists McMahon and Clayton. However, the ensuing recitative featuring the four soloists under-stated the drama of the scene observing the callousness of man to the Saviour.
The lengthy soprano solo Seele, deine Spezerein was performed by Macliver, and in combination with the flute obbligato playing of Andrew Nicholson their sympathetic phrasing added to the beauty of the aria. From an audience perspective the printed text in the program was helpful. McMahon met the tessitura challenges of Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer, a gentle pastorale-like aria of yearning, beautifully conveyed. In Saget, Saget mir geschwinde Campbell demonstrated the required dexterity of breath control in the aria, capturing the anticipation of seeing Jesus once more.
An exhilarating final chorus provided voices and orchestra with a joyous opportunity to conclude the work. Generally the voices produced a controlled and balanced ensemble, although occasional lack of vowel clarity in the upper voices made for a somewhat unvaried sound. The West Australian Symphony Orchestra with refined solo obbligati playing brought a sympathetic and cohesive accompaniment to this unfamiliar work, directed with uncomplicated authority by Nolan.
Seesaw 2019, by Sandra Bowdler
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a jewel box of sparkling musical items, so different in intent and execution from the majestic Passions, and so seasonally appropriate.
Originally written as six cantatas to be performed over six consecutive days starting with Christmas Day, it is now generally performed in one go, as it was here. Cantata No 4 for New Year’s Day (Feast of the Circumcision) was omitted from the performance, perhaps due to the need for horns, depriving us of some 25 minutes of music and particularly the solo echo-soprano air, ‘Flösst, mein Heiland’. Otherwise, this was a beautifully presented and joyous occasion, under the baton of Joseph Nolan.
The Orchestra of St George played on modern instruments, but featured a number of Baroque specialists, notably concertmaster and violinist Paul Wright, and continuo group Stewart Smith (harpsichord), Noeleen Wright (cello) and Libby Browning (double bass). Highly significant contributions came from Yoram Levy on trumpet, Andrew Nicholson on flute and the very hard working Leanne Glover on sumptuous oboe. There were a few tiny glitches, but overall the orchestral playing was tight and virtuosic.
The St George’s Cathedral Consort under Nolan’s leadership has for some years now claimed the title of Perth’s finest choir, particularly in this repertoire, and they did not disappoint on this occasion, particularly in the soprano division. The choir’s usual discipline and accuracy was on display and also a palpable sense of exuberance, from the opening gaiety of ‘Jauchzet, frohlocket’ through the unbridled joy of ‘Ehre sei Gott’ to the lovely hushed finish of ‘Ich steh an deiner Krippen’.
As to the soloists, this was the Australian Baroque dream team: Sara Macliver (soprano), Fiona Campbell (mezzo-soprano), Paul McMahon (tenor) and Andrew Foote (bass). McMahon was the vocal glue holding the narrative together as the Evangelist, sounding a little dry at first, but soon bringing a lovely warm bloom to his shining tenor tone, evident in ‘Frohe Hirten’ with lyrical legato well supplemented by Nicholson’s filigree fluting. His substantial recitative was delivered with excellent diction (manifest across the vocalists) and understanding. Campbell’s smooth gleaming voice caressed the notes in ‘Bereite dich Zion’ and displayed perfectly judged phrasing and accurate melismas throughout, with a wonderful messa di voce on the first word of ‘Schlafe mein Liebster’. ‘Schliesse, mein Herze’, with violin solo from Wright and continuo, was a luminous highlight.
Andrew Foote also seemed to take a little time to warm up, but once he did his resonant bronze tone was a delight, especially with the trumpet in ‘Grosser Herr’, and in the positive conviction of ‘Erleucht auch’.
Without Cantata IV, the soprano doesn’t have a great deal to do, but Macliver sang the aria ‘Nur ein Wink’ with her customary effortless high notes and undiminished limpid purity. There were also some nice moments of blended voices, soprano and bass with oboes and organ, in ‘Herr, dein Mitleid’, and all the soloists and the violin in ‘Ach, wenn wird die Zeit’. Altogether an evening to be cherished and long remembered.
Passion of Christ in Powerful Voice
The West Australian 2019, by David Cusworth
Conflict and control, so much the story of Israel, were front and centre in Tuesday night's rendition of the betrayal and death of Jesus in Bach's St Matthew Passion.
From the first fateful minor-key stirrings of the stripped-back baroque band, emotive and sinuous melodic lines meticulously followed conductor Joseph Nolan's whole-bodied shaping of the sound.
The vocal attack of the St George's Cathedral Consort, supplemented by soprano Sara Macliver and mezzo Fiona Campbell, lilting and dynamic, seemed to echo the epoque-making impact of that first Good Friday.
Cue the Gospel writer, tenor Paul McMahon, and Jesus, baritone Andrew Foote - the pivotal pairing. McMahon, as recitative narrator of the biblical text, put in a word-perfect, cut-through performance with an ironic twist.
Ever-measured in religious presentations, the story is nonetheless brutal; a tale of torture and oppression told in a polished voice.
The heartfelt response in Bach's masterwork comes from the choral responses to the story; chorales and arias providing reflection and commitment, a layer-cake of devotion and emotion delivered with precision and conviction.
One theme, best known as the Easter hymn "O sacred head, sore wounded", runs through as a leitmotif, more tender at each turn.
Another plot device to drive this towering work is partnership, McMahon-Foote setting the pattern. Tenor Richard Butler's honeyed tones with a pared-back choir and Liz Chee's mesmeric oboe for the garden of Gethsemane; Macliver and Campbell lamenting the arrest of Jesus, sustained and haunting; Campbell again with Laurence Jackson's violin on Peter's denial of Jesus, mournfully lyrical, power and passion blissfully restrained.
Intensity lifted after the interval, more raw emotion in the choir but the same control from the podium and narrator as the slow train wreck of condemnation and of crucifixion gathered pace.
Vignettes from bass James Clayton (Pilate), Andrew Nicholson (flute) and Rebecca Glorie (violin) peppered the soundscape before darkness at noon - "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" - triggered a profound silence.
At the last, the choir dialled up a dramatic flourish, echoed in the ensemble and honoured by cheers and applause.
Passion Matched with Perfection
The West Australian 2014, by Rosalind Appleby
I've been searching for a new recording of Bach's St Matthew Passion and I've finally found it. The only problem is it hasn't yet been recorded.
In fact, the absence of recording equipment may have been the only flaw in the St Matthew Passion performed by the St George's Cathedral Consort with the orchestra of The Musician's Table. Conductor Joseph Nolan's attention to detail was evident everywhere else, from the baroque soloists sourced from around the country to the positioning of instrumental soloists.
Nolan's judicious editing cut Bach's three-hour Easter Passion to about two hours and (unlike Mendelssohn's arrangement) the harmonic transitions were smooth and the storyline coherent. The chorales were performed unaccompanied, allowing Bach's evolving harmonic architecture to be clearly heard. The beauty of the consort sound glowed like a pearl. But most significantly, the silence framing the chorales helped reclaim their original function; a space for self-reflection within the gospel story.
At other times, Nolan kept momentum rolling forward, contrasting outraged climaxes with heartbroken intimacy as the story of Jesus' arrest and crucifixion unfolded. Paul McMahon (Evangelist) narrated with fiery conviction, Andrew Foote sang Jesus with weighty presence, while Robert Hofmann and Richard Butler filled out the smaller roles.
Bach reserved his most tender music for the women onlookers in Matthew's gospel and it is hard to imagine more magical versions than the ones given on Sunday night. Fiona Campbell's prayerful "Have mercy" duet with Paul Wright's sobbing violin was convincing, while Sara Macliver's "Out of love my Saviour is willing to die" was like a love song with the trio of flute and cor anglais throbbing an exquisitely soft accompaniment.
"A thousand thanks for thy passion," Macliver sung as Bach's masterwork drew to a close, "That thou didst prize my soul's redemption so dearly!"
For your passion, and for prizing musical excellence so highly, a thousand thanks Joseph Nolan and the cathedral team. Please make a recording soon.
Mozart Great Mass & Requiem
The West Australian 2010, by William Yeoman
When your spine tingles from the first bar, you continuously have to fight back tears and, at the end of it all, the conductor turns to take his bow looking like he's just gone a round with Danny Green, you know you've just experienced an extraordinary musical event.
Comprising two of the great unfinished works of the choral repertoire, Mozart's "Great" C minor Mass and his Requiem in D minor, this concert by four soloists, the St George's Cathedral Consort and a chamber orchestra featuring some of WASO's finest, all under the baton of Joseph Nolan, will live long in the collective memory of the capacity audience.
Why? Firstly, the music itself was sublime, with Mozart's ability to synthesise different styles, from high-church polyphony to Neapolitan opera, operating at full tilt from start to finish.
Secondly, Nolan's ability to feel the expressive weight of each note in the context of the whole without disrupting the natural flow of the music or short-circuiting its emotional logic was again powerfully on show.
Every strand in fugues such as that of the Mass's Gloria felt like they'd had an electric current applied to them; the drama of the same movement's Qui tollis section and the Dies irae of the Requiem was almost unbearable in its intensity; the Mass's closing Benedictus for solo quartet and double choir radiated joy and profundity in equal measure.
Thirdly, soloists, choir and orchestra sang and played as though their lives depended on it. Yes, there were the occasional infelicities, with mezzo Courtney Pitman's more florid passages less than secure and tenor Paul McMahon and baritone Robert Hofmann, otherwise dramatically convincing, sometimes lacking crispness of attack.
But soprano Sara Macliver to my mind had never sounded more radiant - her Et incarnates est with the equally beguiling trio of flautist Andrew Nicholson, Oboist Stephanie Nicholls and bassoonist Adam Mikulicz was one of the highlights of the evening - while the Cathedral Consort sang with an almost otherworldly precision and explosive power. The orchestra, playing on modern instruments but in fine period style, was equally convincing throughout.
The word "genius" is perhaps too readily bandied about these days. I think it's more accurate to say that Joseph Nolan has a supreme talent for recognizing where in a piece of music the genius resides, and how to communicate that to an audience in the most direct and uncompromising fashion. More of a musician you cannot ask.