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Walking on Waves
The Choir of Trinity College, Melbourne/Christopher Watson
Calvin Bowman (piano)
rec. 26-18 November 2019, Chapel of Trinity College, Melbourne, Australia
ACIS APL10178 [67:09]

The choir of Trinity College, Melbourne, opens its recital with a setting of O Vos Omnes by the early 16th century French composer, Jacquet de Mantua. As it stands, this is not a particularly noteworthy performance, and being the only non-20th/21st century work in the programme, it seems, on paper at least, a little incongruous. But it is what follows which makes this fine recording so memorable and noteworthy.

American composer, Daniel Knaggs, was commissioned to write a “response” to Jacquet’s setting, and has come up with a beautiful piece of writing which shows off the amazing ability of this choir to produce an absolutely perfect pianissimo tone, at one point seeming almost to fade down to nothing. The booklet tells us that the choir comprises 31 voices evenly distributed across the four vocal ranges, which makes their remarkable pianissimo even more astonishing. Consisting of student and recent graduates of the University of Melbourne (“and”, to quote from the choir’s biography, “other tertiary institutions”), the prime function of the Trinity College Choir is to sing a twice-weekly evensong in the Anglican tradition – the choir photograph shows them fully robed in scarlet cassocks and surplices. So, this programme of largely secular music, much of it built around folk songs from Ireland, Scotland and America (Nigel Short’s sensitive setting of The Dying Soldier seems to combine all three), and other pieces setting texts mostly by American writers, might seem to move it away from its natural musical habitat. I doubt that I will be alone in wondering why there is so little music by Australian composers and arrangers; the closest we get to Australia in the programme are two songs by the choir’s accompanist, Calvin Bowman, and arrangements by Australian Peter Campbell and New Zealander Michael Leighton Jones, who was Director of Music at Trinity College, Melbourne, from 1997 to 2014. But, of course, there is no earthly reason why an Australian choir should feel obliged always to perform Australian music (even though there is so much outstanding new Australian choral music which is rarely heard on the international platform) and their programme does highlight the choir’s qualities.

Those qualities are a pure, clear tone, excellent diction, exemplary pitching, and a fine inner balance. The female voices are notable for their purity and clarity, and are shown off to their best in the settings of Irish folk tunes for female voices by Michael Leighton Jones. Solo voices projected, notably in “She Moved through the Fair”, have a captivating grace to them, and Jones has a deeply sympathetic approach to the original songs. Bowman’s Words by the Water is a fluid setting of words by the American poet William Jay Smith for unison female voices and a dripping piano accompaniment, while he sets another poem by Smith – Now Touch the Air Softly – in a simple four-part choral style which is strongly redolent of Victorian hymnody. An overriding mood of calm and reflection pervades the programme, but is broken by a fussy, chattering version of the “Shaker Tune” (To Be Free) by Karen Siegel, and by the very brief, bird-like twittering of High from the Earth, a setting for unison female voices and piano by Campbell, notable for its rhythmic edginess.

Calm is restored, and gender balance redressed, with Campbell’s arrangement for four-part male chorus, of folk songs from his hereditary Scotland. These are gentle and flowing, even if Campbell gets a little carried away with contrapuntal exercises and, at the end of “I Know Where I’m Going”, harmonic density. Rhythmic convolutions and a certain harmonic intrigue informs the four American folk song arrangements made by Frank Ferko especially for Christopher Watson and the female voices of the choir in 2019, and they suit them like a glove; which is possibly more than can be said for John Rutter’s lovely arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark. Somehow the voices seem too precise, strait-laced, and (dare I say it?) English, to sound totally convincing, but I am enchanted by the delicately fluttering flute of Laila Engle as well as by Watson’s own graceful piano playing in this performance conducted by Daniel Riley.

Marc Rochester

Jacquet de Mantua (1483-1559): O Vos Omnes [2:27]
Daniel Knaggs (b.1983) : O Vos Omnes (after Jacquet de Mantua) [3:39]
Michael Leighton Jones (b.1947) : Five Irish Folk Songs [12:04]
Nigel Short (b.1953) : The Dying Soldier [3:46]
Calvin Bowman (b.1972) : Words by the Water [3:37]
Peter Campbell (b.1964) : High from the Earth [1:38]
Anthony Piccolo (b.1946) : Jesus Walking on the Waves [6:08]
Peter Campbell (b.1964) : Three Scottish Folk Songs [7:50]
Karen Siegel (b.1980) : To be Free [3:46]
Calvin Bowman (b.1972) : Now Touch the Air Softly [2:25]
Samuel Barber (1910-1981) : Sure on this Shining Night [2:27]
Frank Ferko (b.1950) : Four American Folk Songs [12:38]
Hoagy Carmichael (1899-1901) – arr. John Rutter (b.1945) : Skylark [4:36]

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