Heaven knows it’s hellishly good

Oriana Chorale:
One Foot in Eden
Reviewer: Jennifer Gall,
Canberra Times, 19 April 2011

I greatly enjoy the care with which David Mackay constructs each program presented by the Oriana Chorale. The repertoire often presents old favourites balanced with less well-known works, and usually there is a bold exploration of new and demanding choral territory to test the singers. In this concert, it was Nicholas Maw’s One Foot in Eden Still, I Stand that provided the challenge. Positioned at the heart of the concert, Maw’s setting of Edwin Muir’s powerful poem resonated with the poet’s contemplation of the balance between innocence and experience, creation and destruction, birth in paradise and the mortal round. The Oriana Chorale gave a memorable performance and anchored One Foot in Eden as the dramatic balance point of the concert.

Gerald Finzi is a composer who captures an essential equanimity and contentment in his depiction of English pastoral themes. The open modality of his settings create a spaciousness encouraging contemplative listening and the choir brought the lyrics to life, particularly in Clear and Gentle Stream with the basses and tenors singing a deliciously evocative phrasing of ‘the fish lie cool in their chosen pool’. These songs were an interesting contrast to the three flower songs by Britten.

Claude Le Jeune’s Reveci Venir du Printemps was sung with a gentler approach than many versions, inviting both singers and listeners to savour the 16th-century harmonies rather than bouncing from chord to chord. The delivery had a stately progress, building to a grand conclusion.

After interval, the choir performed Jan Sandström’s setting of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, creating a wonderful sound world, with the choristers and octet spaced in the nave to generate layers of harmony to fill the cathedral. The effect was quite mind-altering and had such a different impact to the original setting. Hail, Gladdening Light by Charles Wood made a good contrast to the first song complemented by the subsequent item, Harris’s Faire is the Heaven.

Eric Whitacre’s three songs, I hide myself in the first half with its electric, swerving dissonances; Go Lovely Rose and With a Lily in your hand after the interval were highlights of Saturday’s concert. The tidal wash of the voices in Go Lovely Rose was followed by the more rhythmic third song. Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Linden Lea as the concluding item on the program was a real treat recreating the composer’s rural idyll with the smooth phrasing from the choir. I had not remembered how pleasing the distinctive timing is in this setting until hearing it again and relishing the well enunciated lyrics.

The beauty of Saturday’s concert was the way in which the lyrics have continued to work in the memory through activation by the musical performance. This concert represents another fine musical gift from the Oriana Chorale.