“Tenebrae” performed by Polifemy with BlockSounds. At Wesley Uniting Church, April 13. Reviewed by GRAHAM McDONALD
POLIFEMY is a small singing ensemble based in Canberra and directed by Robyn Mellor. It specialises in exploring music written and/or performed by nuns in the 15th and 16th centuries. This may seem a narrow focus of musical interest, but it was a period of great development in vocal polyphony and the repertoire is extensive.
For this concert Polifemy included a setting of Psalm 122 by the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt to open the concert followed by a selection from one of the settings of The Book of Lamentations composed by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. This is a version for four parts published in 1588. The more modern harmonies of the opening work by Pärt fitted seamlessly into the much earlier music of Palestrina and the ensemble sang superbly throughout the concert. The balance between the four parts and eight voices was excellent and the music floated through the church.
The vocal works were interspersed with short instrumental pieces by a Portuguese composer Antonio Carreira who lived and worked at the same time as Palestrina. The instrumental works were played on four recorders by BlockSound, also led by Robyn Mellor. This did mean that there was some choreography involved as the choir left the stage after each work to sit in the adjacent choir stalls and Mellor moved to take her place with the recorder players. Spoken readings from the unsung sections of “The Lamentations” filled the gaps, but these were mostly lost in the acoustics of the church and so not as effective as they could have been.
Recorders are notoriously hard to play in tune, but the four players of Blocksound did well. They were obviously listening to each other and the result was pleasant and musical. For the larger size of recorders they use instruments made from plywood with a square cross section. This gives an open, airy tonal quality closer to the flute stops on a pipe organ that the traditional recorder sound.
This was cleverly conceived and excellently performed music. The music of Pärt and Palestrina sit comfortably alongside each other and the addition of the recorder ensemble added a most suitable instrumental contrast to the vocal music.