City Recital Hall, Sydney
February 24, 2018

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra has kicked off its 2018 with a neat program exploring Thomas Tallis and his influence on a handful of major English composers. Taking us from the 16th century through to the 20th, this smartly curated evening is a well-balanced mixture of favourites and lesser-played works that ultimately builds to a cohesive whole.

Thomas TallisMax Riebl and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. Photo: supplied

Central to proceedings is the always reliable Brandenburg Choir, given every opportunity to show off its chops. Byrd’s Ave verum corpus was performed with a touching simplicity, crisp diction and pianissimi to be commended. The choir’s phrasing possessed definite direction – crucial in works of this nature, but so often a secondary concern – while a slightly open-toned sound, deployed throughout the program, helped some of the more complex vocal writing come across effectively. Gibbons’ moving Drop, drop slow tears, sung with little vibrato and subtle textual emphases, was a highlight, as was the viola and cello-only introduction.

Something of an audience favourite, Australian countertenor Max Riebl is a Brandenburg regular, having first sung in the Choir and subsequently performed as a soloist in a number of concerts with the Orchestra. Gibbons’ Great Lord of Lords, which sees Riebl alternating with a five-part chorus, is therefore a bit of a nod to his roots. His is a slender instrument, but it possesses a bell-like quality that carries in a room, and when he opens up there are reserves of power that you mightn’t have expected at first hearing. Gibbons’ work would have benefited from more rhythmic precision, but the six singers are alert to the words, and there are nice though brief solo contributions from alto and bass.

Thomas TallisPaul Dyer and the Brandenburg Choir. Photo: supplied 

Riebl’s two arias, the Cold Song from Purcell’s King Arthur and Fammi combattere from Handel’s Orlando, show an artist with a little way to go. More attention to the dramatic circumstances of each showpiece would have made for more effective performances, particularly in a concert format like this one, while some juicy lines – see “let me freeze again to death” – were given short shrift. A more generous sound is probably needed in the Purcell, while there were some slightly insecure high notes in the Handel. That said, it’s clear that Riebl has got the goods, and there were some tasteful decorations in the da capo of Fammi that impressed. The Orchestra was splendid in both arias, judderingly effective in the first and spirited in the second.

Locke’s Curtain Tune from The Tempest could have used more of that energy – slightly too sedate, moments of tension and climax didn’t register as strongly as they could have, leaving this tempest feeling a little tame. However, the Overture and Rondeau from Purcell’s Abdelazer were particularly accomplished, with sharp accents and fervent string playing that carried through to the Largo and Allegro of Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op. 6/7. Organist Heidi Jones’ impressively agile performance of Gibbons’ Prelude in G was a high point.

Leaving the strongest impression of the evening, the concert culminated in a truly accomplished performance of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis. Preceded by a lovely rendition of Tallis’ Why fumeth in fight – which provides the aforementioned piece with its ‘theme’ – the Orchestra gave a remarkably soulful reading of this popular work. Paul Dyer led his players to an impassioned climax that felt earnt, drawing glowing sounds from the strings and a multi-hued texture that felt both hushed and alive.

Thomas Tallis’ England plays in Sydney until March 3, before heading to Melbourne February 24 – 25