CD Review: A Very Brandenburg Christmas/ Australian Brandenburg Orchestra/Larissa Kovalchuk


The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s new CD A Very Brandenburg Christmas, is a live recording of its popular 2014 Noël! Noël! annual Christmas concert at Sydney’s City Recital Hall.

With the 2015 Noël! Noël! series expanded to include a new venue and an additional concert, the release of A Very Brandenburg Christmas is  timely addition to the collection. Touring Sydney and Melbourne, regional centres and suburban churches, Noël! Noël!’s audience numbers in the thousands.

For A Very Brandenburg Christmas, the orchestra, conducted from the harpsichord by Artistic Director Paul Dyer AO, was joined by guest artists bandura player and soprano Larissa Kovalchuk and saxophonist Christina Leonard, with baroque violinist Ben Dollman stepping out as an orchestral soloist and the 22 strong Brandenburg Choir whose alto section is comprised solely of counter-tenors.

Released by ABC Classics (481 2176), the fourteen tracks are a happy mix of the traditional and the modern. Just four of the fourteen tracks are strictly Christmas fare. The rest are broader sacred works and secular pieces. Especially interesting are the arrangements of the traditional works by contemporary Australian musicians Alice Chance, Christina Leonard and Matthew Manchester.

The Brandenburg Choir in full voice opens with a call to celebration, the laudatory Deus in adiutorum by Padilla (1590 – 1664). The following Divisions on Ancient Carols is a delightful medley in which we hear the unusual and elemental sound of the cornetto played by Matthew Manchester in solo with basso continuo, first in plaintive melody then developed with some spectacularly ornamented variations.

The bandura, like the cornetto, is an instrument of the 16th and 17th centuries whose sound conveys its hybrid history of east and west, zither and lute, bass and treble strings. Larissa Kovalchuk performs exotic traditional  Ukrainian instrumental music as well accompanying herself as she sings the Ave Maria, commonly attributed to Caccini (1551 – 1618), but in fact, thought to have been composed by the more recent Vladimir Vavilov (1924-1973). This track backs on to a rather more pulsating choral transcription of the aria by Alice Chance who maintains and extends its luscious harmonies and long lines.

Samuel Barber’s not-at-all-easy-to-sing Agnus Dei, (1967) carved by him for choir from his Adagio for Strings (1936) may as well be straight from the vellum leaves of a Renaissance monastery hymn book, with its contemplative melismatic lines, melodies and counter melodies, multiple rhythms and modulations. Written for stringed instruments, the music doesn’t necessarily translate well for the voice. It is a certain test of a choir’s ability and the Brandenburg Choir, singing unaccompanied, achieves it well.

Saxophonist Christina Leonard brings her extraordinary technique to performing her transformation of J S Bach’s Concerto for violin and Oboe d’amore in C minor BWV 1060. Replacing the oboe with the saxophone gives the sound a contemporary feel and both saxophonist and violinist (Dollman) strike a delicate balance in their dialogue. Leonard coaxes the subtlest of sounds from her instrument, especially in the Adagio, with fine phrasing and glassy smooth legato, whilst in the outer two movements  she reveals just how nimble the instrument can be.

Catalani’s aria Ebben! Ne andrò lontana, from the opera La Wally is set by Alice Chance to the rhythm of a slow rumba and performed with great beauty by soprano Anna Sandstrom and the choir. It’s connection with Christmas is tenuous, but consider that the Evening Song from  Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel has also become a seasonal favourite.

It’s always a delight to listen to Franz Gruber’s immortal classic Stille Nacht especially when it is sung unaccompanied and in German. The choir sings with hushed and even beauty of tone and fine dynamics, following the German verse with the Ukrainian and then the English text.

But it’s Christmas and there is fun to be had. There is a twang to bass Nick Gilbert’s rendition of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas a showstopper owned by Judy Garland in the movie Meet Me in St Louis. The irrepressible Dyer now clads the new in the old as Gilbert sings in conversational style – or should that be recitative?- with Dyer not just playing the harpsichord, ornaments and all, but providing the backing vocals as well.

Lastly, O Come All Ye Faithful  as arranged by Sir David Willcocks who will no doubt be remembered with special fondness this year.

The audience joining in the final carol and the enthusiasm of their applause effectively brings this performance into the living room.

The booklet accompanying the recording has the text to all the choral works, historical notes by Lynne Murray, biographies of the performers and images of the concert.

Heart-warming and fun.

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©

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