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Christmas to Candlemas

Christmas to Candlemas
Ensemble Gombert
John O’Donnell - musical director

$23   (Australian dollars)


buy at: AMC - Buywell - iTunes

Ensemble Gombert is one of Australia’s finest choral groups. It is directed by John O’Donnell, an extraordinary musician who is well-known as an organist and harpsichordist, as well as being a highly respected academic. Under his direction this group of singers gives historically informed performances of choral music through the centuries, from Josquin to Arvo Pärt. Ensemble Gombert, heard frequently on ABC-FM, sings regularly in its home city, Melbourne, and is about to undertake a tour of Europe.

Christmas to Candlemas refers to the 40 day period from December 25, the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, commonly called Christmas, to February 2, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, as it is commonly called today, or Candlemas, as it was commonly known in the past, owing to the tradition of lighting candles during the singing of the Nunc dimittis before Mass.

So this is not yet another CD of Christmas music - it is a wide-ranging CD of music celebrating this 40 day period. Director John O’Donnell says: “The works on this disc have been selected from the Christmas to Candlemas programs that Ensemble Gombert has been performing annually since 1994. Often billed as “Melbourne’s carol-free Christmas concert”, Christmas to Candlemas usually features an array of motets and a Mass setting chosen from the vast array of riches from the High and Late Renaissance.”

Gorgeously in-tune performances and a sumptuously resonant recording made in St Xavier’s Chapel in Melbourne, make this CD a must for all lovers of choral music.

Nesciens mater a 8
Josquin 6
Praeter rerum seriem a
de Silva
Puer natus est nobis a 5
Hodie nobis caelorum a 5
Clemens non Papa
O magnum mysterium a 6
TallisGloria in excelsis Deo from Missa Puer natus est nobis a 7
Quem vidistis, pastores? a 6
Clemens non Papa
Vox in Rama a 4
Omnes de Saba venient a 8
SheppardReges Tharsis et insulae a 6
PalestrinaSenex puerum portabat a 5
Nunc dimittis a 12


While there may not be a word for it, there can be no doubt that there is a condition - particularly suffered by church musicians - of carol allergy. At this time of year we are regaled by countless performances - many of them atrocious - of those traditional hymns pertaining to the Christmas season. Ensemble Gombert has tried to alleviate the condition over many years by presenting 'Melbourne's carol-free Christmas concert' regularly since 1994.

This CD is a compilation of some of the pieces from those concerts. If you are looking for anything like the usual seasonal offerings, forget it. This is a serious, even erudite, exploration of some of the music written for the forty days between December 25 and February 2, the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (otherwise known as Candlemas).

The repertoire comes almost exclusively from the 16th century. As one would expect, there are pieces by Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis, Lassus, and the eponymous Nicholas Gombert, but also gems from the lesser-known Jean Mouton, Andreas de Silva, Clemens (both father and non Papa), John Sheppard and Josquin. While there is a good deal of stylistic similarity, the differences one observes when hearing these composers side by side are fascinating.

The individual vocal characteristics of the singers add to the fascination: the voices are matched, but not blanded (sic), and this enriches the polyphonic textures, clearly differentiating the interweaving lines. The helpful, but not obscuring, acoustic of the Xavier College Chapel, one of the ensemble's favourite haunts, delivers a range of colour that enhances the experience.

Director John O'Donnell has a wonderful ear for pitch and, apart from a few places at entries, his singers demonstrate habits of intonation that are quite exemplary. Particularly interesting - and well executed - are the characteristic pitch clashes of the works by Desprez and his ilk.

Rhythmically, I wished for more precision. This music abounds in rhythmical subtlety, even ambiguity. But the performances are less exciting than they could have been, especially at moments of transition between duple and triple metre. And what should surely be joyful ejaculations - Alleluia and Noe - are often plain dull.

This is not a CD for the newcomer to choral music, but it is an interesting and valuable addition to the available recordings of music from this period and a relaxing relief from the prevailing fare of Christmas carols.
Noel Ancell
Music Forum May 07

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