Bearing The Bell

St Stephen’s Uniting Church, City, September 27 

Robson res
Andrew Robson

Writing liturgical music in the Tudor age obliged a certain flexibility. Thomas Tallis was England’s preeminent composer as the state faith flicked back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism, and burning archbishops was much in vogue. Andrew Robson exhibited a flexibility of his own in arranging Tallis’s nine 1567 hymns for his own alto and soprano saxophones, Sandy Evans’ tenor and soprano, James Greening’s trombone and pocket trumpet and Steve Elphick’s double bass. He conceived of the work as a suite called Bearing the Bell (a reference to Tallis’s epitaph) which was here aired in a venue obviating any need for microphones.

Being an improviser – as Tallis almost inevitably was, himself – Robson arranged the hymns to accommodate concise solos or dialogues. This should not be confused with “jazzing up” Tallis’s music. Yes, the players are steeped in jazz’s harmonic language, but their improvising drew heavily on the composer’s melodic motifs, and the moods and rhythms were very much Tallis’s, with down-beats emphasised as they seldom would be in jazz.

Twenty-first century music might be broad in scope, but stateliness and even gracefulness are largely foreign to it, and perhaps Robson’ greatest achievement was to preserve those priceless qualities. Indeed the combination of two sopranos, trombone and bass on The Sixth Tune sounded like some fantastical period instrument. The best known of these hymns is that which spawned Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and here Greening’s pocket trumpet took that brooding melody, a brass instrument only serving to further emphasise the desolation.

Evans was at her potent best in a tenor dialogue with the bass on The Second Tune. For The Seventh Tune Robson devised a bass ostinato to underpin Evans’s solo, and the piece was the most jazz-like, while the eighth was played in rounds, leading to ensemble improvising. The only downside to the church’s resonance was the horns submerging the bass solo on The Sixth Tune, despite being played at their softest.