The voices of the Brandenburg Choir drifted into City Recital Hall from the wings before the choir assembled onstage, opening the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s enduringly popular annual Noël! Noël! concert with Michael Praetorius’ arrangement of Philipp Nicolai’s Wachet auf!

The tinkle of chimes sustained the atmosphere created by the choir – forestalling any applause – as the orchestra followed with the 17th-century Sonata à 9, a fanfare featuring the period brass instruments and timpani. New Zealand soprano Madison Nonoa joined the ABO for Once in Royal David’s City. “Discovered” by the orchestra’s Artistic Director and harpsichordist Paul Dyer, Nonoa was the highlight of the concert, her exquisitely contained soprano, delicately spun with vibrato, shimmering over the sound of the choir.

Madison Nonoa and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, photo © Steven Godbee

Noël! Noël! taps into the nostalgia and mysticism of the Christmas period, without stooping to the bland homogeneity of the standard carols concert, the concert continuing with a mixture of old favourites and rare treasures.

A particular highlight was Ola Gjeilo’s The Spheres – the Kyrie from his Sunrise Mass – a spacious and ethereal series of vocal halos, lightly touched with percussion, that transformed the choir into a living organ. The lyrics of the heart-rending Coventry Carol, from a 14th-century Coventry mystery play, refer to Herod’s murder of children in Bethlehem, the carol sung by mothers to their children to quieten them in the hope they will escape the slaughter. The tenors and basses were menacing and martial, Nonoa’s descant a stylised wail. The darker mood extended to Con qué la lavere, attributed to Luis de Narváez – the final lyrics “I am wretched, and bathe myself with anguish and pain” – though the Spanish music was brighter, Nonoa accompanied by Tommie Anderson on theorbo.

ABO trumpeters Leanne Sullivan and Rainer Savile got a work-out in Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Trumpets, the velvet sound of their Baroque instruments cascading off each other, giving the impression of a single trumpet playing in a reverberant chamber.

Madison Nonoa, Paul Dyer and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir, photo © Steven Godbee

The choir’s rendition of Ben Folds’ The Luckiest was well-sung but felt slightly out of place in the programme, as did Amazing Grace, but ABO librarian Alex Palmer’s arrangements of the more traditional carols were strewn festively with the tinsel of chimes and glockenspiel, creating a unified aesthetic across the concert. His arrangement of O Little Town of Bethlehem allowed the ABO brass section – especially the sackbuts – to shine. The concert drew to a close with Stille Nacht (Silent Night) – verses sung in German, Maori and English – and O Come, All Ye Faithful, which also served as a singalong encore and play off for the choir. A unique take on end-of-year carols, there is enough unusual and interesting in Noël! Noël! to charm the jaded Christmas concert-goer with plenty of nostalgia to please the traditionalists.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Noël! Noël! tours until December 20


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