★★★★☆ A three-part polyphonic soothing of the soul for Easter.

St. Mary’s Crypt, Sydney
March 30, 2016

In a year 11 maths class, I distinctly recall having an argument with a school peer about whether Tchaikovsky or Beethoven was the greater composer. When I proposed the question “Tchaikovsky or Beethoven?” to my teacher, he replied, “Monteverdi”. Without Monteverdi’s towering figure in Western music, none of the proceeding greats would have been possible. In the Crypt of St. Mary’s Cathedral, the a cappella vocal group The Song Company put on a performance of early music, including Monteverdi, Gombert, Byrd and Mundy, together with works in a polyphonic style by contemporary composers including The Song Company’s own Artistic Director Antony Pitts, as well as Australian composers Elliott Gyger and Alice Chance. Though the long weekend is behind us, this concert is supposed to arouse the drama, majesty and mythic spirit of Easter. Given the holy location, the superb singing and the well thought out programme, it was quite a success. 

The concert was divided into three parts, representing three aspects of Easter: Tomb, Hades and Throne. The sections ran onto one another without applause, maintaining the sense of gravitas and mystery, connected only by a few thespian readings of poems by polymath Pitts himself. Each section incorporated a movement from Monteverdi’s Missa In illo tempore, using and exploring themes and motifs from works by Gombert which in turn featured in the programme. Each section also worked in Thou wast present as on this day from Pitts’ Requiem for the Time of the End. The unifying element was the fluidity of time, the connection between past, present and future and, of course, the musical thread of polyphony that can arouse a sense of the eternal in the hands of a dexterous composer. 

The singing throughout was precise and unforced, the vocalists taking advantage of the Crypt’s natural amplification. Pitt’s direction from within a circular arrangement ensured a tight relationship between vocalists, as well a democracy of the six singers. There was some thoughtful choreography, such as in the Byrd, where the soprano solo circled the other singers, as the sun moves around the sky, the homophony drawing out the theme of light banishing darkness. The contrast of plainchant and homophony against more daring and dissonant lines in Gyger’s and Pitts’ works was striking but soothed by the ultimate resolution in the form of Monteverdi and Mundy – again highlighting the fluidity of time and composition. Though all singers played their part, Andrew O’Connor was notably strong and full-bodied in a number of the items, particularly the Gyger. The arrangement of Thou was present as on this day in the final section (Throne) was notably resonant through a series of sustained, clashing high notes before giving way to Mundy’s promise in In aeternum of salvation through belief in God’s precepts.