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A Requiem to die for……

By , November 7, 2009

Requiem for Phillip II

Christobal de Morales – Missa pro Defunctis

Alonso Lobo – Motet: Versa est in luctum

The Tudor Consort

Directed by Michael Stewart

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St., Wellington

Saturday 7th November

The Tudor Consort’s concluding presentation in their splendid 2009 series of musical events was a reconstruction of the funeral music for Phillip II of Spain, a monarch forever associated with the unsuccessful Armada expedition of 1588 sent against England, but whose patronage of the arts during his mere forty-two years identified him more positively with a “Golden Age” of cultural activity throughout the Iberian peninsula during the latter part of the sixteenth century. At the King’s death in 1598, a Requiem Mass written by Cristobal de Morales (1500-1553) was performed, along with a more recent work, the Motet “Versa est in luctum” by Alonso Lobo (1555-1617). Together with an introductory Antiphon, “Circumdederunt me”, also by Morales, these were the works sung by the Consort. The choice of venue was appropriate enough, though I could have imagined an even more evocative ambience wrought by this timeless music at St.Mary’s of the Angels, a more overtly “theatrical” ambience which could then have readily lent itself to some antiphonal placement of different solo voices at various stages of the mass. However, the focus was the music rather than the ceremony; and Michael Stewart’s Tudor Consort voices wove for us a multi-stranded panoply of beautiful sounds throughout the evening, bringing out the telling contrasts between the composer’s use of both plainchant and his own polyphonal settings of the texts.

After the ethereal loveliness of Morales’ opening Antiphon, with the music’s individual strands superbly tuned and balanced by the choir, the starker unisons of the opening Requiem came as something of a shock, creating a real, visceral contrast between the timelessness of the composer’s polyphonic harmonies and the resolutely medieval-sounding plainchant, which was presumably the effect that was intended. Morales employed these dramatic changes throughout the work, revelling in both unities and contrasts by using the “old” chant as a springboard from which to weave his vocal elaborations, long-breathed vocal lines which seemed to span eternities by bringing time to a standstill, everything beautifully sustained by the Consort, with only one or two momentary uncertainties of tuning showing at mood-transitions between paragraphs of texts.

Perhaps Michael Stewart and the Consort might have used solo voices more spatially and ritualistically to create antiphonal effects between celebrant and chorus in places; but one couldn’t fault the character of the actual singing, and the sense of atmosphere created by the sounds of the exchanges. For this nineteen-fifties churchgoer, brought up in the Catholic Latin tradition, it was a chance to revisit long-unheard sound-vistas, none more potent than the thirteenth-century hymn “Dies Irae”, which Morales employs almost in full in its original setting, its principal melody beloved of many more recent composers – I would have added the name “Rachmaninov” to the list of names quoted by the programme note, as the “Dies Irae” was a constantly-recurring motif in the latter’s music. At the end of the hymn, Morales sets merely the last two lines of the poem, the beauty of the polyphonic lines coming like balm to the senses after the severity of the older unison chant. Somehow the applause at the end of this section seemed out of place, even if it was time for an interval.

I particularly enjoyed the Offertorium after the resumption, the singers intoning the plainsong “Domine Jesu Christe Rex gloriae” before unfurling more of the composer’s beautifully-wrought polyphonies, these having a tensile strength whose upward-thrusting impulses emphasised the solidity of Christian faith and belief in heavenly destiny, finding eventual fulfilment at “et semini ejus”. More memory-evocations for me came with the Preface (tenor) leading to the “Sanctus”, Morales creating a rapt, worshipful feeling building up towards long-breathed majesty, as the Heavens and the Earth fill with the Lord’s glory.

The sung “Pater Noster” was another voice heard long ago and brought magically to life here again, its plain, everyman aspect set against the majestic treatment accorded the “Agnus Dei”, its thrice-repeated statements building to a grandiloquence and emphasis that couldn’t help but inspire awe and reverence. Afterwards, the placid, light-suffused “Lux aeterna” brought a measure of consolation, tempered by the imploring energies of the suceeding “Requiem aeternam”, and the sobering declamations of the tenor’s concluding “nunc dimittus”, in which the departing soul is farewelled and committed to the care of the Almighty.

And that was it, but for what was the most telling moment of all – the tiny Motet by Alonso Lobo, whose contribution to the funeral service has forever linked his name with that of Morales, but whose reputation in contemporary Spain stood alongside that of Tomas Luis de Victoria. Michael Stewart and his Consort shaped the work most beautifully, integrating the soaring soprano line with the acompanying textures and allowing the silences to surge softly backwards at the music’s conclusion. Altogether, a richly rewarding experience, and concluding a year of activity and achievement that the Consort and its director can be truly proud of.

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