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SWISS composer Frank Martin’s passionate and deeply religious “Mass for Double Choir” was suppressed by its own creator for nearly 40 years before it was available for performance in 1963. It’s since been frequently performed in churches and concert halls.
Canberra’s Luminescence Chamber Singers sought and gained funding to commission works by contemporary Australian composers, Kim Cunio, Brad Gill, Anastasia Pahos and Elliot Gyger, to be interleaved with segments of Martin’s Mass, an elevated, ecstatic work, which explores the full potential of the human voice through full harmony, overlapping phrasing and in short, of vocal devices.
The two specialist consorts were held in tight control by Peelman, who coaxed every vocal variation he could from his singers in a bravura conducting performance that was fascinating to witness.
Beginning with Martin’s powerful, elevated “Kyrie”, there followed Cunio’s version of Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon”). The joint choirs were especially powerful in the lower register, underscoring the melody and the exploration of the word “Zion” with their plosive sounds.
After Martin’s “Gloria”, which began with beautiful overlapping phrases, the choristers performed Brad Gill’s chan (zen) inspired work “Drop Off The Body“, continuing the ecstatic tone of the preceding “Gloria” but exploring different tonal conventions and playing with the lexical meaning of the text.
Martin’s “Credo” followed, to my mind the high point of the concert, allowing the singers to run the gamut from full-blooded polyphony to delicate phrasing in a rapturous affirmation of the composer’s faith.
Anastasia Pahos’ Russian Orthodox-inspired version of “The Lord is my Shepherd” saw the Melbourne consort break away to make a foray into Byzantine chant, alternative scales and drone-like sounds. The humming at the beginning was beautifully sustained in this pleasing composition.
After Martin’s “Sanctus” and “Benedictus”, the final commission work, Gyger’s slightly academic “Baptism by Fire” followed. The antiphonal call and response in English, Hebrew and Greek put the book of Isaiah and John the Baptist’s acclamation of Jesus into the context of the Mass’s “Agnus Dei”, showing the full potential of the joint choirs and permitting a very beautiful solo breakout by soprano Chloe Lankshear.
Martin’s own “Agnus Dei” completed this concert of rare music, which deserves much wider attention.