“In one way or another, all of the music in this programme is concerned with faith and belief,” wrote conductor Sam Allchurch ahead of the Sydney Chamber Choir’s German Romantics. “How these concepts were worked remains for me the most interesting side of the 19th century.”
Allchurch’s passion for this music was on display in Sydney University’s Great Hall as he lead the SCC through a beautifully constructed programme of Mendelssohn, Schubert, Brahms, Herzogenberg, Rheinberger and Schoenberg.
Sydney Chamber Choir. Photo © Nick Gilbert
The choir brought excellent diction and an affecting resonance to the opening RIchte mich, Gott (Judge me, O God) by Mendelssohn. Pianist Jem Harding provided a shimmering accompaniment to the Mendelssohn’s more tranquil Denn er hat seinen Engeln (For he was given his angels charge over you) – Allchurch’s conducting style loose and relaxed more coaxing than demanding – before the pastoral catharsis of Schubert’s setting of Gott ist mein Hirt – Psalm 23, The Lord is my shepherd, in a German translation by Felix’s grandfather Moses Mendelssohn.
The tranquillity of the Schubert extended into the opening Andante section of Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso Op. 14 for solo piano. The Great Hall’s cavernous acoustic, however, which gave the choir an uplifting resonance, felt muddy for the instrument alone. As the piece gained steam, Harding’s sparkling clarity and control, deftly navigating the rambunctiously virtuosic passages, made for an exciting performance and he drove home the work’s final outburst with panache.
Following the accumulating layers of Herzogenberg’s Meine Seele erhabt den Herrn (My soul magnifies the Lord), the centre-piece of the first half was Brahms’ Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen (Why is light given to the wretched). Allchurch infused the explosive “Warum”s with powerful energy, tapering the diminuendos down to almost nothing. The choir was in top form here, negotiating the complex fugue textures and spider-like creeping lines in a work that typifies the Romantic darkness to light progression – text from Job and Lamentations giving way to peace and joy from Martin Luther.
After the heaviness of Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen, the bright triumph of the fourth movement from Brahms’ German Requiem – Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How lovely are your dwellings) – brought us to interval. Bruckner’s Christus factus est, composed alongside his mammoth Seventh Symphony and the Te Deum, opened the second half, Allchurch and the SCC making the most of the dramatic contrasts in what was a highlight of the programme.
The second half of the programme continued to explore ideas of faith, swinging from the anxiety and pain of Rheinberger’s setting of Psalm 116, Ich liebe, weil erhöret der Herr (I love the Lord because he hears the voice of my pleading) to the warm counterpoint of Brahms’ Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein reines Herz (Create in me a pure heart, O God) – again, deftly handled by the choir – to the clean lines and calm triumph of Brahms’ Heilig ist Gott (Holy is God) and, finally, the serene healing of his Geistliches Lied (Sacred Song).
If there was an occasional ragged entry or slight pitch discrepancy in the high register, this was more than offset by the rock solid a cappella mastery of the choir, particularly in the weaving lines of the contrapuntal works, and their unwavering commitment to the emotional content of the works. Allchurch’s thoughtful programming meant a concert that spanned 13 works by seven composers never felt bitty, but enticed the audience to join him through a moving survey of the German sacred music of the Romantic period.
The finale was Schoenberg’s 1907 unaccompanied Friede auf Erden (Peace on Earth). While the harmonies are more complex than those of the preceding works (the composer was beginning to push the late-Romantic boundaries with deeper forays into chromaticism and atonality, but this is still well before serialism) Allchurch drew from Friede auf Erden a swelling optimism. Schoenberg would later – on the other side of World War I – refer to the work as an illusion. But if it is an illusion, it is a beautiful one, magically conjured by Sydney Chamber Choir.