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Without Carols

Renaissance music
for Christmas -
reviewed by

'... endless web of glorious sound ...'

Christmas to Candlemas. Ensemble Gombert. John O'Donnell, director. © 2006 Tall Poppies Records

Ensemble Gombert has presented an annual 'Christmas concert without carols' for more than ten years. This disc draws on that experience to present seventy minutes of gorgeous Renaissance polyphony appropriate to the season.

Named for a sixteenth century composer highly regarded by his peers but now almost forgotten, Ensemble Gombert is one of the leading chamber choirs in Melbourne, Australia's second largest city. This CD was recorded just before a recent tour of Italy, Switzerland and England which wound up with Vespers in Westminster Abbey on 12 October 2006.

The choir's founder and director, John O'Donnell, has an international reputation as an organist and early music scholar and has also been directing choirs for most of his career (I remember him well in that role in a choral concert in Melbourne's sprawling Victorian-Gothic St Patrick's Cathedral about twenty-five years ago).

These eighteen voices specialise in music of the High Renaissance, and with such a specialisation and such a director it is no surprise to find that they place a high value on historically informed performance practice. They focus particularly on purity of intonation and sweetness of tone, but deprecate strong dynamic contrast because O'Donnell believes it to be historically incorrect for early sixteenth century music -- this came in with madrigals fifty years later.

The works sung here were composed between about 1470 and 1600 by composers as celebrated as Tallis and Palestrina and as obscure as John Sheppard (c1515-1560) and Andreas de Silva (whose dates are given 'c1475-?' in the liner notes, and who worked in Mantua and Rome). They celebrate, in sequence, the Nativity, the feast of the Holy Innocents (28 December), the Epiphany (6 January) and Candlemas, now better known as the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (2 February).

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Copyright © 19 December 2006 Malcolm Tattersall, Townsville, Australia


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