There were empty seats at St George’s Cathedral on Friday night. It was an unusual sight at a Consort concert and I can only hope the non-attendees were expressing their disapproval at the absence of mulled wine at interval rather than the contemporary repertoire on the program. Either way they should be regretting their decision because the spiced apple juice at interval was a good substitute and the Alexander Levine’s music simply extraordinary.

The Consort gave the Australian premiere of Levine’s hauntingly beautiful Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. The Russian/English composer’s setting of the ancient liturgy drew on the operatic drama of Bach’s Passions and the soaring ecstasy of Renaissance polyphony. Add Levine’s Russian heritage and his contemporary harmonic language and the result was an enthralling composition that sat easily alongside the great liturgical settings by Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Tavener.
The 22 movement a capella work spanned a vast dramatic range. A solo bass chant opened the work with the choir adding angelic harmonies of open fifths and the occasional suspended dissonance. The chords became thicker with entries only a semitone apart – very difficult to pitch for the singers. In the Second Antiphon echoes of plainchant could be heard in the modal writing and the Hymn to the Lord was suddenly fast and rhythmic with folk-like syncopations.
Levine’s originality sparkled within the traditional structures. Penderecki-esque chord clusters depicted the supernatural in the Cherubic Hymn; a sustained soprano line became the pedal note around which all the harmonies resolved and the thrilling climax of a triumphant hymn was outdone by the surprise of a whisper-soft ‘Amin’.
Conductor Joseph Nolan was emphatic on the climaxes, rigorous with the ever-changing time signatures and single-minded in his pursuit of purity of sound, even in the tension of close harmonies. The Consort’s distinctive blended sound and precise diction was evident even as they explored an earthier Russian sound. Occasional mispitched entries revealed the difficulty of Levine’s writing and the challenge of singing an 80 minute work unaccompanied. But minor errors were forgotten alongside the satisfaction of a perfect cadence at the end of a softly spun phrase, wrapping the ears in a warm aural embrace; it was well with my soul.

This review copyright The West Australian newspaper 2014