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Last weekend at the Woodend Winter Arts Festival in Victoria, John O’Donnell led a period-instrument orchestra, Accademia Arcadia, and the singers of his Ensemble Gombert in a wonderfully direct and unfussy performance of Bach’s St John Passion. The instrumental blend was transparent and alluring, the tempos never flagged and there was just the right amount of fervour in the singing of chorus and soloists.


For me, however, the main revelation was O’Donnell’s use of a boy instead of a woman to sing the two soprano arias. Not only was it historically apt (Bach would have had a boy singer in mind), it made musical sense, both arias being lightly scored for pairs of flutes to match the smaller voice. Crucially, it also made sense of the texts. In the soprano aria of Part One, the singer, all innocence, follows Jesus with “happy steps”; in Part Two, the soprano’s heart melts “in floods of tears” after the Crucifixion. In both cases, the sound of a boy’s voice (eleven-year-old Benjamin Fullarton, singing with impressive confidence) underlined the precise affect of the music and the words. This, one felt, was authentic in every way. 

Andrew Ford / Inside Story





Ensemble Gombert’s 30th year did not go to plan due to COVID, so this one-off concert was a welcome return to live performance for the renowned Melbourne choir. A celebration of French composer Josquin des Prez, the program of six motets was performed with a fine balance of studied precision and discreet joy by the 22 singers.

Pleasantly more representative of the Australian community than one might expect of a choir specialising in a cappella performance of Franco-Flemish music of the High Renaissance, Ensemble Gombert stepped onto the stage in casual concert black. They began with Praeter rerum seriem, a work that is austere yet suggestive of mystery, starting low and sombre then building into a polyphonic masterpiece. The choir’s five parts passed the melody between them with beautiful fluidity and, as was the case throughout the performance, sang the text with splendid clarity.

The choir’s ever-calm, avuncular director John O’Donnell then took a few moments to address the audience, explaining that this being the 500th year since Josquin’s death is one of few things known about the composer. Among the interesting snippets he revealed was that the ensemble’s namesake, Nicolas Gombert, may have been a student of Josquin.

The contemplative Stabat Mater followed, then Inviolata, integra, et casta es Maria, notable for its dynamic variety and shifting prominence of voice types: the sopranos, clear and bright, often shine in this concert as one would expect, but here altos also have their moments, and tenors and basses are pleasingly showcased. A slight croak among the tenors at a critical moment of Salve Regina was the only blot on the concert copybook, while Regina caeli laetare, which is almost ostentatious by Josquin’s standards, was a flawless, mellifluous delight of interweaving voices.

O’Donnell’s second and final background offering included a little about this one-hour concert’s finale (and the only work not concerned with the Virgin Mary), Miserere mei, Deus. It has been described, he said, as the musical equivalent of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, which was also created in the early 16th century. If that put any pressure on the choir to soar to such heavenly heights, they didn’t show it.

The Miserere mei, Deus is a study in simplicity, most notably the repeated titular phrase sung by the tenors who step up and down in pitch. Other voices flowed in and out in a meditative, almost hypnotic display of tonal variety and harmony. Closing my eyes, the music swept me far away to a time and place when those who first heard this work were certain of the divine, and hopeful of their place in an afterlife where the angels would surely sing like this.

Patricia Maunder / Limelight Magazine




"It seems extraordinary that Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers of the Blessed Virgin was barely mentioned through the course of musical history until what seems to have been its first public performance in the 1930’s and first recordings made in the 1950’s. It was not surprising then, that it was a near capacity audience which highly anticipated being immersed in this iconic work, especially when the accomplished Ensemble Gombert and Ludovico’s Band guaranteed Vespers would be a highlight in this year’s Recital Centre program... Just the vision of Ensemble Gombert and the period instruments of Ludovico’s Band was delightful, although no doubt staging was an initial challenge for musical director John O’Donnell and artistic director Marshall McGuire, given the dizzying variety of structures in a score requiring seven soloists, a chorus being divided in up to ten parts, accompanied by varied instrumental combinations or solos, or omitted altogether... Conducting from a central chamber organ John O’Donnell demonstrated his commitment to a more authentic and honest historic style, with a uniform pure and balanced sound and a constant tone... These final sections leading into the hymn Ave Maris Stella, and the closing two minutes of the Magnificat with its rousing, dramatic conclusion heightened our respect for the collaboration of these two ensembles, as we were transported back in time to another place with music and spiritual cohesiveness. The final extended AMEN was performed with strength and majesty in a stirring conclusion, a tribute to Monteverdi’s belief that 'The end of all good music is to affect the soul'."

Julie McErlain / Classic Melbourne


Clive O’Connell


Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel

Saturday April 29

James J. Walsh, safe in the pre-World Wars harbour of 1907 New York, believed that the Thirteenth was the Greatest of Centuries, and he wrote a lengthy appraisal to prove it.  He may still be right but, considering music, there’s a case for placing the Twentieth as the most significant period in that art’s development.  It’s not just that populations exploded and so did the numbers of musicians; after all, a huge number of them became involved in the post-1950 popular music industry, turning their backs on the development of their art to bog themselves down in endless repetition and debasement to the point where the music itself became secondary to peripherals – costumes, lighting, dry ice –  and where the great world of possibilities released in the field of electronic music was reduced to an endless array of incompetents and non-musicians recycling the trite and the cliched, reducing rhythm to a sub-primal jog-trot, avoiding any harmonic progress beyond Brahms, refusing to employ any material for melody outside a diatonic scale.

Counterbalancing this descent to the gutter, the century enjoyed incredible liberation across every musical parameter, sustaining remarkable leaps in aesthetic theory and virtuosity of performance.  The consoling fact for some of us is that musical craft marches on, despite frequent lurches sideways into mediocrities so that, while the popular bent is to hallow Prince or David Bowie or Jimi Hendrix – none of whom I would have trusted with singing a line in a Palestrina mass – the massive figures of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern and Boulez continue to shine lights onto the compositional practices of our more adventurous (and musically educated) contemporaries.

On Saturday, John O’Donnell and his uncompromising Ensemble Gombert veered once again away from their habitual Renaissance stamping-ground into near-contemporary regions, their program’s chief work being the oldest.   The singers opened their night with in time of, a well-known piece originally produced in 1995 by composer/conductor Stephen Sametz.  This e. e. cummings setting is a representative sample of the Ethereal American, which has some similarities with the pseudo-mysticism of John Tavener and the slew of Baltic composers who favour slender immobility.  Sametz’s work sets the five stanzas in cummings’ botanically referential lyric in straight-through fashion before returning to earlier sections and confounding the text in a striking exhibition of verbal polyphony.  Sametz uses high soprano textures like many of his peers but the music has a dynamic fervour that separates it from the ruck.  Unlike several US performances of this piece, the Gombert version gained clarity from the Xavier Chapel acoustic which exposed the vocal interplay to better effect than the heavy echoes favoured by choirs from across the Pacific.

John McCabe’s Motet from 1979 sets a poem by James Clarence Mangan which sounds like a fusion of Swinburne and Christopher Smart.  The music’s most obviously striking feature comes at the start of each of its nine stanzas on the words Solomon! where is thy throne, and Babylon! where is thy might; wide common chords provide an arresting contrast with the score’s main body with is satisfyingly complicated, a test for the double choir involved.   Like the Sametz preceding it, McCabe’s work sustains a consistent atmosphere, arresting and idiosyncratic.


From 1976 come Mervyn Burtch’s Three Sonnets of John Donne; no recherche surprises here with Oh my blacke Soule!, Batter my heart and Death be not proud.  The first presents on the whole as a contrast between monody and a sparing harmony, both alternating between the lines; in the most famous of the sonnets, Burtch uses unison more sparingly although the vocabulary he employs is chorally congenial with only a few points to cause some eyebrow-lifting – the attack on Yet dearely sounded clumsy, while the magnificent last line begins in monody before branching into parts for the last four words which seem tame for their content; while the last of the trio delighted for the rich treatment of Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie, and the clever alternation of forces in the final couplet. The Welsh composer wrote these settings for simple SATB choir and the Gomberts  – in slightly amplified form with  five each of altos, tenors and basses, and seven sopranos –  invested each sonnet with firm eloquence and some splendid soft chord-work.

Antonin Tucapsky’s In honorem vitae, five Horace settings, also requires only four vocal lines.  The composer has selected the opening stanzas to odes from Book 1 – Nos. 2 (with an extra two words) and 37; the first stanza of Odes II, 14 with the address that rings across the centuries  –  Eheu, fugaces, Postume; the initial stanza of Carmen 9 from Odes IV; and the complete Odes I, 11.


Written in 1975, this composition opens with appropriate vigour for Ne forte credas, before moving into a more severe strain for the second set of verses. Iam satis terris, in ternary shape, employed a dynamically reduced plane.  For Nunc est bibendum, bubbly enough, Tucapsky seemed engrossed by the suggestive clause, nunc pede libero pulsanda tellus, which eventually took over the setting; the address to Postumus made little impression; the last line of the Tu ne quaesieris octet surprised for its employment of fugato – a touch dry after the investment of ardent emphasis on isolated phrases and words like quem mihi, quem tibi, or Ut melius, or sapias.  Still, the composer contrived an intriguing composition with loads of variety in texture as he worked through what he called ‘madrigals’.

It was a source of enjoyment to hear the singers present Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir, one of those choral masterworks that for many years lived an existence outside of performance, given a reputation as un-singable.  These days, its difficulties seem manageable and its alleged fearsomeness is belied by interpretations like this one which shine with facility and consoling humanity.  As for the opening Sametz work, the Xavier chapel proved a gift for this score, despite the carpet that covers most of the building’s floor; the choir enjoyed plenty of resonance, much preferable to a definition-softening echo.

The Christe eleison in the first movement demonstrated very ably how to construct an impressive ecstatic outpouring without losing dynamic control.  Ditto for the racing energy of the Cum Sancto Spiritu of the Gloria, during which Martin gives the basses a hefty presence for the first time in the Domine Deus segment.  You realized the advantages of having this work sung by female voices during the imaginatively mobile Credo; the gain in expressiveness is remarkable, even when compared with the last time I heard this work – from the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge in July last year – a fine reading, certainly, but the Gomberts gave you a more telling vision of the composer’s passionate humanism.


The Sanctus got off to a clumsy start from the Choir I sopranos but both Osanna segments were among the night’s high-points for their bright, light-filled bravura.  The Agnus Dei has Choir Two maintaining a slow march-like tread as it outlines the text while the other force delivers a fluid, near-Gregorian melody in unison, before both bodies combine for the final dona nobis pacem.  At certain stages, the various lines split into two, a device which does not trouble larger choirs.  But the Ensemble rarely sounded attenuated – partly because of their innate musicianship, partly because of Martin’s excellent distribution and allocation of labour.

This Mass capped off a night where the Gomberts showed their ability to turn their combined talents to unexpected enterprises and come through the trials of 20th century compositions with high success.

Clive O'Connell / Courtesy of O'Connell the Music



Clive O’Connell


Ensemble Gombert

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday February 13

Fitting the Vespers into the smaller of the Recital Centre’s spaces made for a pretty solid challenge.  John O’Donnell used a version of the score that I’ve not heard before which does without the rich orchestral fabric of the full-scale version, reducing all Monteverdi’s support potential to a chamber organ, from which the body’s founder directed his 22-strong choir.   In the Salon, we were all well-involved with the performance and quite a few faces that present as mere blips in the distance at Xavier College Chapel – the Gomberts’ usual theatre of action – took on added interest; not simply for being distinctive but also for the physical exertion involved in their labour, here seen at close range.

As you’d expect, the advantages of proximity for Monday night’s audience were balanced by some benefits for the singers.  Primarily, the pressure involved in making the five psalms’ linear and chordal interplay resonate was alleviated by the fact that projection could be achieved with less strain than is required in a large church space.  Yes, you lost an initial surge of excitement which bursts out at the opening to the full version where the composer revisits his Orfeo prelude with a massive instrumental array (as most performances present it) contesting with the choral forces.  But every note carried and made its mark, and the choral fabric impressed for its lucidity: lines that usually get lost in the mesh could be discerned, even in pages like the 10-part Nisi Dominus.


In general, this performance succeeded most fully in the large-frame movements where all present were involved; the early Dixit Dominus and Laudate pueri impressed for the vivid power of the dozen female voices while the tenor thread in Lauda Jerusalem came over with a quietly resonant consistency, although the concluding doxology to this movement turned out to be the performance highlight for me, particularly striking for the precision of the off-beat entries during the last Amen pages.


The last time I heard this work, at the opening to the 2014 Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival, conductor Gary Ekkel used soloists of some stature for the motet/concerto movements that interleave the psalms of these vespers.  O’Donnell followed his usual practice of giving all solo lines to his Gombert members; although the choir was slightly expanded in size for this occasion, as far as I could tell everyone took part in the choral movements.

Much of the night’s weight fell on tenor Tim van Nooten who expounded the solo Nigra sum, shared the Duo Seraphim with Vaughan McAlley (and, later, with Peter Campbell) and took on the main burden of Audi coelum.  His voice is hard to characterise: clean and carrying, not aggressive in attack, holding something of a countertenor’s detachment but without any stridency.  The only noticeable problem – and that appeared mainly in his early solos – was a running-out of breath, so that the endings of certain phrases verged on the dangerously tenuous.

Carol Veldhoven, one of the Gombert veterans, worked impressively with Katherine Lieschke in the Pulchra es motet, and with commendable security in the concluding Magnificat a 6 where the same pair made a fair fist of Monteverdi’s echo effects.  The bass soloist in the Laetatus sum psalm was competent and professional, but I couldn’t recognize him, even at close quarters.


Still, the individual singers gave the impression of being under stress during their moments of exposure; nothing came easy and, although correctly dutiful for the most part, they were at their most effective when moving back to reinforce the general population.

In this version, as well as missing the initial splendour of dotted-rhythm energy, you also do without the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria which comes close to the end and is one of the full work’s least effective movements despite (because of?) its simplicity.  And the concluding Magnificat on this night was negotiated rapidly – the second of the two available, I believe.   Yet the reading made for a satisfying and involving experience, drawing you in by the sheer grittiness of music-making being carried out within arm’s reach.  You might have reservations about the soloists’ assurance but this choir in full flight has a vehemence and informed impulse that engrosses and can often enthral.

Clive O'Connell / Courtesy of O'Connell the Music



"[...] It was Ensemble Gombert’s duty to present something new in what has become a well-furrowed field, and they did this admirably by presenting the very rarely heard organ-only version of the Vespers in their recent Local Heroes concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre... Nisi Dominus was lucid, rhythmically incisive (tricky, given the density of the texture and the slow movement of the harmonies) and mobile. The Ensemble sang Lauda Jerusalem in a lower transposition, providing welcome relief for all, and it was a thrilling and engaged performance even at the lower pitch... both see Monteverdi in the stile antico and, not coincidentally, the Ensemble on home territory, giving performances indicative of the Ensemble at its best."

John Weretka / Classic Melbourne



[...] Finally, three inspiring passages of play: Peter Dumsday's brilliantly sustained piano solo in Brendan Colbert's dense Like a Maelstrom for the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble in March; tenor Andrew Goodwin's faultless Evangelist for the Melbourne Bach Choirs' St Matthew Passion on Good Friday; and the Gloria from the Ensemble Gombert singing their namesake's Quam pulchra es Mass – a brilliantly executed paean, simultaneously overwhelming and exalting.

Clive O'Connell / Courtesy of The Age



Clive O’Connell
Ensemble Gombert
Xavier College Chapel
Saturday September 3
It’s a fraught business, picking masterpieces, and trying to do so when treating music of more recent times presents substantial difficulties.   Most of us would not argue with John O’Donnell and his Ensemble Gombert when they selected Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor as the opening to this ambitiously named concert.  The work is much loved in the English-speaking world for its serene fluency, a sort of inevitability that takes you back across centuries of self-regarding English church music to the magnificent assurance of the Tudor masters.

Expanded slightly for this occasion to twenty voices, the group produced a perfectly satisfying reading, with a splendidly full interlocking of voices at the great double-choir moments: the opening to the Gloria and its Cum Sancto Spiritu pages, both the Cujus regni and Et vitam venturi from the Creed, those seraph-suggesting Osanna antiphonal strophes, and the spacious breadth of the last page’s Dona nobis pacem pleas.  In the best British choral tradition, the four soloists proved equal to their tasks, carried out with care and no attention-grabbing quirks; the only glitch I detected came in the last exposed tenor solo of the Agnus Dei where the high G sounded strangled.

Hugo Distler’s Totentanz is an impressive construct  . . .  but a masterpiece?   It could be, but the choral components bear only part of the score’s weight.   The work is a real Dance of Death  –  a voluble character who invites a range of representative individuals to give themselves up to the inevitable.   Starting with an emperor and working through the social ranks to a new-born child,  Death orders each to join the dance, answering their pleas for mercy/understanding with an unanswerable response concerning what each of the condemned could have or should have done before facing the Judgement.
This is conducted in rhymed spoken dialogue, the source Johannes Klocking who shaped his verses for Distler’s use.   The choral contribution comprises a group of 14 Sayings, aphorisms by Angelius Silesius from his The Cherubinic Pilgrim of 1657, the ones that Distler chose all commenting on the coming interchange between Death and his newest victim.   After a fashion, these spruchen serve as off-centre chorale-preludes, proffering brief statements about the condemned one’s condition or failing(s).  The problem is that DIstler’s settings, apart from the bookends, are truly aphoristic – no sooner begun than over – which makes it hard to find a consistent field of operations from the composer.  The choral writing is challenging for its application of dissonance, but the briefness of Distler’s statements has the impact of diffusing any compositional personality.

O’Donnell had one singer reciting Death’s lines and shared the roles of bishop, physician, merchant, sailor and the rest around his singers, who coped with some stickily consonant-rich German quatrains quite well, if a few of the nouns and verbs were transmuted in the process.   Yet, at the work’s conclusion, despite the encircling and infiltrating effect of the music, the greatest impression is made by Klocking’s stanzas with their no-nonsense self-evaluations and insistence.
Petr Eben’s Horka hlina or Bitter earth is an early work from 1959-60 when the composer was 30.   It consists of a setting for baritone (not an over-taxed role), mixed choir and piano, of poems by Jaroslav Seifert, the Nobel Prize-winning Czech poet who produced these nationalistic verses in 1938 as his country faced Nazi invasion.   The imagery is emphatic and repetitious – a bayonet, a painted jug, grapes/flowers/grain/stones and pebbles – and the settings are either stentorian or folk-style sentimental.   Both outer movements – Song of the Men and Women, and Song of the Poor – have voluble piano accompaniments, here performed by O’Donnell.   Streams of powerful virtuosity introduce and sustain chorus work that is declamatory and full-blooded.  The central piece, a mainly a cappella Song of the Homeland, has a quieter ambience and more lyrical melodic content. But on one hearing – and I could find no recordings of the work – it is hard to enter into evaluative detail of worth.    A masterpiece?    I think Eben would have proposed others among his works more qualified for that title.
Nevertheless, the Gomberts’ performance of this and the Distler work, with the participants coming down from the altar to the front of the chapel pews, proved highly persuasive, particularly the ensemble’s mastery of Seifert’s texts in the original Czech.

Clive O’Connell / Courtesy of O’Connell the Music



Clive O’Connell
Ensemble Gombert
Xavier College Chapel
Saturday April 30
Holding back nothing at the start of their annual subscription series, John O’Donnell and the Ensemble Gombert presented an impressive night’s work on Saturday, filled with music from composers for the Flemish Chapel, that central religious music body associated with the Holy Roman Emperors.   Pierre de la Rue, Brumel and the ensemble’s namesake are familiar quantities to most lovers of Renaissance activity; Noel Bauldeweyn and Thomas Crecquillon, not so much; for this program, the latter provided two motets that shamelessly flattered (or did they?) Emperor Charles V, while Bauldeweyn contributed a motet on which Gombert wrote the mass that gave this recital its spine.

It is a mighty work, the Missa Quam Pulchra es; so much so that O’Donnell served it up in discrete sections, with interpolations from those other Franco-Flemish composers mentioned above.   A fine initiative, as far as it went; the trouble here was that some of these interstitial pieces were not small passages of relief but considerable constructs, like the Brumel Laudate Dominum in caelis amalgam of Psalms 148 and 150 that proved just as substantial as parts of the Gombert mass, with the added quality of a text crying out for hyperbole, insofar as that existed among these composers.

De la Rue’s Magnificat octavi toni made an expansive initial gambit, alternating four-part polyphony with plainchant and distinguished by its unexpected musings on certain phrases in the central verses Fecit potentiam in brachio suo, and, further on, the dispersit superbos mente cordis sui observation.  But the impression at the end was of continuous variety, two-part settings with over-lapping entries set against bursts of full choral texture.  This bounding around also gave the venerable text a welcome gaiety, mirroring the Virgin’s delight in her treatment.

Bauldeweyn’s motet, its inspiration taken from the Song of Songs, made the mildest of introductions to the mass, an upward step pattern of a 4th providing a jumping-off stone for nearly all Gombert’s Ordinary settings; nothing particularly striking to be found, either, in later phrases but all clear grist to an inventive mind on the lookout for a cantus firmus or three.  In the Kyrie, apart from the rich complex of six interweaving and contrasting lines, the only oddity came in an unexpected upward inflexion at the end of the Christe eleison.

But the Gloria was a whole new matter.  Gombert massed his forces and kept up the pressure in a welter throughout the first half, up to that traditional hiatus point before the Qui tollis change of purpose from incessant apostrophes of praise to pleading for redemption.   At the start of the extolling sequence – Laudamus te. Benedicimus te. Adoramus te. Glorificamus te. – the strong suggestion was of bell-like vocal cannonades, constant and even in a seamless paean.  This was followed by a full-bodied sequence of apostrophes as the choir asserted the divine attributes, from Domine Deus through to Filius Patris.  The less sympathetic could see this as pounding away at doubt or scepticism through a technique of musical bludgeoning that admits of no argument, a less sympathetic anti-Reformation response than Palestrina’s, for example.  But the effect from these singers was close to overwhelming, splendidly assured and confident.
A similar feat occurred in the Credo which spread its affirmations in one chain from the opening bold declaration to the assertion of God made man.  After the block assault thus far, the Crucifixus and its consequents provided a relief in tension through more obviously varied textural oppositions but the movement reached its uplifting climax in the Confiteor section, a ferment of linear and metrical action.  Still, it seemed to me that the finest singing came in the Sanctus/Benedictus, particularly in a mellifluous delineation of the Pleni sunt caeli segment where the Gomberts’ balance and clarity of output impressed most fully.
Both Crecquillon motets praising his emperor were given a steady, martial interpretation, Carole magnus erat enjoying a striking soprano kick-off, its directness of speech a contrast to the preceding formidable Gloria, as was its sober ending where the poet and composer collaborate to celebrate the good intentions of the emperor, truly pious rather than obsessed by his own glory.   A theme that returned in Quis te victoriam dicat? where the march-like metre celebrates the royal figure’s victory over his enemies but, more to the point, over himself – a message that was reinforced two-and-a-half times with determined grace by this hard-worked but rarely faltering body of singers.
For this occasion, the Gombert personnel numbers were slightly greater than usual with an extra alto and another tenor while regular Peter Campbell paid a peripatetic visit to the altos every once in a  while.   Still, for those of us who were there, the Ensemble demonstrated yet again why its reputation as the city’s indubitable experts in Renaissance choral music is unchallenged.

Clive O’Connell / Courtesy of O’Connell the Music



Clive O’Connell
Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival No. 21
St Patrick’s Cathedral 
January 8
This festival celebrated reaching its majority with a serious undertaking. Bach’s Mass made for an impressive opening gambit but a hard act to follow next year.
John O’Donnell and his Ensemble Gombert, expanded by about 10 voices, provided the backbone, supported by the Accademia Arcadia period instrumentalists, and a quintet of soloists with the usual mix of abilities and insights. Bach’s substantial paragraphs are challenging; the choir’s preliminary strophes were followed by an orchestral discussion both engrossing and prolix.
The Accademia performed to fine effect from the outset. Lucinda Moon led the strings, working through the discursive lines with uniform articulation and supple phrasing. Just as impressive was the woodwind sextet: Simon Rickard and Brock Imison offered a vital, mobile pair of bassoons; Greg Dikmans’ flute was a flawless delight in the Domine Deus duet, and, later, Kirsten Barry’s oboe enriched alto Sally-Anne Russell’s resolute account of a Qui sedes solo.
O’Donnell’s speeds tended to the conservative, although the choir slowed things down in the big polyphonic meshes, like the Cum sancto spiritu finishing the Gloria and the measured affirmations that wind up the Creed. Moon and her players followed the beat with vigour while Ensemble Gombert moved with deliberation. Matters were not helped with the tenors being recessed; one of the soprano bodies more emphatic than the other, and a bass sextet dominating the mix.
Still, Russell, bass Michael Leighton-Jones and soprano Sally Wilson gave good service. Leighton-Jones was a ringing presence in the Quoniam, partnered by an accurate baroque horn from Darryl Poulsen. The trumpet trio made fair work of their improbably high writing, enriching the performance where it mattered most, at the swirling Sanctus: pages of controlled ecstasy and grandeur.
Clive O’Connell/Courtesy of The Age



The first offering of the 2016 Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival was the glorious Mass in B minor of J.S.Bach, in St. Patrick's Cathedral. This powerful and spiritually uplifting work is not often performed, being such a large-scale undertaking. Director John O'Donnell brought together an A-list of early music specialists with his choral group Ensemble Gombert and soloists to produce an outstanding performance. From the first Kyrie, with its full texture and complex polyphony realised with clarity, to the various arias with single instrument obbligato parts, such as "Qui sedes ad dexteram" in the Gloria, or the "Benedictus", the instruments and voices worked as one. In the full ensemble sections the virtuosic winds and strings were supported and driven by precision tympani work. There were challenging moments, particularly in the "Domine Deus" of the Gloria, but the overall result was extremely satisfying. [...]

Bronislaw Sozanski/Courtesy of Ballarat Courier



[...] The Ensemble Gombert began the year with a compelling sequence of High Renaissance polyphonic marvels; this body still preaches to the converted but its output continues to be remarkably focused and informative. [...]
Clive O'Connell/Courtesy of The Age



Clive O’Connell
Ensemble Gombert
Xavier College Chapel
Saturday December 5
Melbourne’s finest choral force had a pretty easy time at its last concert for 2015, a by-now traditional event that can take in music dealing with the Christmas Night event as well as its Gospel postludes up to the Feast of the Purification and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. On Saturday, the Gombert singers collaborated with some of Danny Lucin’s early music experts from La Compania: a sextet of cornett, sackbuts and three strings supplementing John O’Donnell who directed each segment from a chamber organ.
Central to the program, Schutz’s Weihnachtshistorie prefigures later settings of the Nativity story, the most famous being Bach’s wide-ranging Christmas Oratorio. But where the later composer deviates from the New Testament text to interpolate introductory choruses, a sinfonia, many arias, chorales, a duet or two, some ariosi, even a trio, Schutz sticks to his last and simply tells the story as set down in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Most of this task falls to an Evangelist who occupies centre-stage for much of the piece’s length, following a rather strict one-note-one-syllable recitative path with – as far as I could hear – only a couple of fanciful flights – on the word entfloh suggesting the flight to Egypt, and a final flourish at the close of the Evangelist’s contributions where he observes God’s grace in the growing child Jesus.
The full Gombert complement contributed to the work with the solid opening which promises at some length that what follows is concerned with Christ’s birth, and with the conclusion, a hymn of thanks praising God at some length. The 18 singers also contributed to the 6-part Gloria exclamation from the angels praising God to the shepherds; this is one of eight intermedia where the text is given personalisation – the solitary angel of Katharina Hochheiser addressing the shepherds, later prompting Joseph to exile in Egypt, then ordering him home; an alto/tenor sextet for the shepherds’ response, a tenor trio for the Wise Men questioning the Child’s whereabouts, all four Gombert basses representing the priests and scribes, Michael Strasser’s solo bass for Herod.
Vaughan McAlley’s tenor was not over-pressed by the Evangelist’s line, which is easy-going compared to the same role in the Christmas Oratorio, not to mention the St. Matthew Passion marathon which McAlley has sung with other groups. His voice is clear, the notes accurately centred, but the actual timbre, the vocal quality lacks assurance and comes across as studied; not tentative, as the singer knows the task in hand, yet lacking that fluency which urges the narrative forward. Hochheiser’s first angelic address made a positive impact of agility, but for a fair while I could not distinguish any specific word: fricatives, plosives, consonants of any kind were absent from the vocal output which had only two Baroque violins vying for attention. Better followed with the semi-recitative encouragements to Joseph and a less aggressive string support.
Still, the impression of Schutz’s score in this reading was of an often dour construct, lightened by the choral bracketing. La Compania contributed with a flawless sonic mix that could have been amplified to the fabric’s benefit, particularly with some woodwind colour like recorders or a buzzing dulcian or two.
In the night’s second part, the ensemble sang three Michael Praetorius motets: the rarely-heard Jesaia dem Propheten das geschah, and two more familiar workings of well-known melodies in the double-choir Von Himmel hoch da komm ich her and the impressive 9-part Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern. Full fruits of the Venetian school and the Gabrielis’ influence, these sumptuous complexes brought a seasonal richness to the Gomberts’ celebration, balancing the spartan directness of Schutz’s bare-bones narrative with its very welcome interpolations. Despite the body’s modest numbers, O’Donnell’s ensemble handles these grand soundscapes with more elegance and clarity than most other bodies with many times the number of participants.

O’Donnell introduced the two final anthems with a Pachelbel chorale-prelude for Von Himmel hoch and a solid Buxtehude chorale fantasia on Wir schon leuchtet; both tests of digital exactness and linear distinction. For this music, you could not hope for a more informed and able executant.
Post-concert, the night took a turn for the bizarre when the audience found that Xavier’s security operations – with both the Ensemble Gombert and the Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra at work in the grounds – had closed off the gates. It’s one way to treat your guests, I suppose, but suggests an unnerving lack of consideration for others that stands clearly in opposition to the college’s self-proclaimed aim of producing career altruists.

Clive O’Connell/Courtesy of O'Connell the Music

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