Around Renaissance Europe in 80 minutes
Music by Tallis, Byrd, Le Jeune, De Sermisy, Lassus, Issac, Josquin, Gombert, Palestrina, Marenzio, Victoria, Lobo, Morley, Gibbons, Weelkes
The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart
St James Church, Lower Hutt, Wednesday 24 June 2009
This is only the second time in their 23 year history that The Tudor Consort have sung at St James’s in Lower Hutt, both occasions as part of Chamber Music Hutt Valley’s concert season. There’s a general belief that singing doesn’t agree with fans of chamber music, but here was contrary proof: I sensed that the audience was bigger than for most of their purely instrumental concerts.
It was an Anglo-centric programme, starting and finishing in England, with a guided tour around Renaissance Europe – France. Spain, the Netherlands, Central Europe (meaning the German states) and Italy.
Michael Stewart’s pre-concert talk drew attention to the fact that France was not represented by any polyphony and England by only Tallis and Byrd. Though the latter two opened the evening, their pieces, a Pentecost motet by Tallis and Attolite portas by Byrd were among the more challenging pieces to bring off. The writing does not create the kind of almost naturally blended sound that the Continental polyphonists seem to produce; individual voices were more evident and the English composers’ intention was clearly to let the singers’ skills, and probably the force of the words, be appreciated.
The choir’s task was the greater challenge as a result of the church’s lack of reverberation, a surprise considering its size; the reason: acoustic tiles on the ceiling.
Loquebantur variis liguis began with fairly complex counterpoint at once, with long melismas on words like the first one. So the final line, ‘Gloria Patri et Filio…’,.sung in unison by the men, was all the more dramatic.
The contrast with the two French chansons was striking, as Stewart had warned. Inevitably, their composers would have been unfamiliar to most, Claude le Jeune and Claudin de Sermisy, both working in the middle and late 16th century: both sung by a five-voice madrigal-style group. Le Jeune’s Revecy venir du printans was a charming song with quite a modern feel though the performance revealed a certain lack of ease. Au joli bois was in marked contrast: slower, more thoughtful with more touches of polyphony.
Orlando de Lassus, contemporary with Byrd, Palestrina, Victoria, was Flemish-born, but working in Munich, offered, for me, the first taste of the choir’s real strength in an imposing work, his Magnificat: Praeter rerum serium. Plain chant, evoking a much earlier era, alternated with polyphonic antiphons. Though they gave various opportunities for men’s and women’s voices alone, the masterly weaving of the counterpoint flowed with subtle dynamic variations while their dramatic pointing, such as emphatic attack on key words,
The heartland was reached before the interval, with the two other Flemish masters, Josquin and Gombert. Josquin’s Inviolata, integra et casta es revealed the beauties of the women’s voices in soprano-led passages, while Gombert’s Tulerunt Dominum demonstrated the choir’s control of long slow sentences in which volume and intensity ebbed and flowed.
Here the choir’s real talents, their careful vertical blending and contrapuntal textures, in great music, were most to be admired, all the work of conductor Michael Stewart.
After the interval there were shorter pieces. The ‘Kyrie’ from Palestrina’s landmark Missa Papae Marcelli and a succulent madrigal by Luca Marenzio.
Introducing the two Spanish pieces, Michael Stewart noted their performance a couple of days earlier for the visiting King Carlos of Spain, the Versa est in luctum by Lobo, wondering about its appositeness – for the funeral of Philip II in 1598. Neither it nor Victoria’s O quam gloriosum was long: I’d have tolerated rather more of such beautifully sung music, a robust bass line lending it character.
Then and elsewhere, I thought again how the atmosphere would have been enhanced by dimmer lighting. Lighting has always been a matter of which the choir has taken care: it really matters.
We were then back in England, with two madrigalists, Morley and Gibbons. The latter’s The Silver Swan, was short, adroit, stylish, if perhaps without brilliant vocal contrasts – but that’s the dilemma of demanding very different genres from one group of singers – this one, trained, and perfect, in complex polyphony.
So they did well to end with Weelkes’s Gloria in excelsis Deo which again demonstrated their true skills in highlighting stereophonic effects, tossing phrases from section to section, and the beautiful balance and blending of voices within each section.
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