Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae – Music for Holy Week
Works by ANON (Gregorian Chant), THOMAS TALLIS, ERNST KRENEK, GIOVANNI DA PALESTRINA and ROBERT WHITE
The Tudor Consort
Michael Stewart, director
Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St., Wellington
Good Friday, 2nd April 2010
Thanks to Vaughan Williams’ well-known Fantasia for String Orchestra, the musical language of Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585) has a familiar ring for many concert-goers. The composer’s intensely melancholy minor modes with their “dying fall”, were quoted by Vaughan Williams from the work Archbishop Parker’s Psalter, and were also very much in evidence throughout what we heard of Tallis’s during this concert. The music seems to speak directly across the centuries, evoking at once both a timelessness and the atmosphere of the troubled times in which the music was composed. Tallis’s settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, taken from the Old Testament and describing the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., were part of a Good Friday presentation given by the Tudor Consort, featuring various settings of these Lamentations, among them one from the twentieth century by Ernst Krenek (1900-91), and others by Palestrina and a lesser-known English Renaissance composer, Robert White. Two liturgical responses from Gregorian plainchant provided both framework and context for Tallis’s and Krenek’s settings in the concert’s first half.
For me, the Tudor Consort’s presentation in Sacred Heart Cathedral on Good Friday evening was magnificent, but also risky. I thought the repertoire chosen was possibly too consistently meditative, lacking the context of an on-going ritual or any marked contrast with different music. Of course, one suspects that, as with the case of the music-lover who compiles concert-hall-length presentations of slow movements only, there will be various staunch ideas regarding how best to present this repertoire in public. On Friday evening the insertion of two pieces of plainchant between the first-half settings of the Lamentations provided a little of the foil against which these pieces could have individually shone and glowed, not to say placed as part of a service – I liked the juxtapositioning of voices in the first Gregorian Chant exerpt , the Responsary In monte Oliveti shared between Michael Stewart singing the verse “Vigilate…..” and the choir’s wonderfully sinuous unison lines in response. But I felt less comfortable during the somewhat disembodied rendition by Stewart of the plainchant Lesson In coena Domini from the pulpit as the prelude to Krenek’s Lamentations setting – less to do with the singer’s own voice than his seeming abandonment of the choir, left standing in place as though it had been suddenly decommissioned.
Individually, the items were difficult to fault as regards singing, pacing and shaping – in every case the message of the text was projected with expression appropriate to the words’ meaning, Michael Stewart’s control of the ebb and flow of the singers’ delivery ensuring a constant connection on the part of the singers between words, phrases, paragraphs and whole works, and their message. But I wondered whether, by the time we had reached Robert White’s second-half Lamentations setting, a “less-is-more” situation was starting to develop. Given that the settings did use different texts in most instances, the almost wall-to-wall complaint and beseechment did begin to weigh upon the spirit of at least one listener, especially as the second half had no leavening plainchant or contrasting interlude between the two sets (Palestrina and White).
What was evident was that, with Palestrina after the interval, Vaughan Williams completely disappeared! The textures of the Italian’s writing seemed richer, and certainly different harmonically – perhaps something to do with a “certainty” or “centering” of spiritual identity, unencumbered by the travails of Protestant upheaval. Certainly, his work is regarded as having, in the words of one critic, “an austere serenity almost unique in post-medieval Christian art” – and the work of the choir brought out this beauty in places like the sopranos’ “Pupilli facti sumus” (all of this beautiful music, here and elsewhere, depicting despair and abandonment!), and tellingly-attenuated lines throughout the concluding “Jerusalem”, a beautifully-voiced supplication.
Following Palestrina’s setting, Robert White’s Lamentations sounded very “English”, a return some of the way to the sound-world of Thomas Tallis. Whether it was because the evening was wearing on and the singers were tiring, I didn’t really know; but I thought the choir’s lines not as “moulded” as earlier, with the tenors especially likely to ever-so-slightly obtrude, – though I must say that, for me this stimulated the ear and enlivened the textures in places, and dispelled any hint of bland homogeneity. As with Tallis, there seems to me an underlying melancholy about the harmonies, one that permeates English choral music – perhaps the influence of folksong? Some lovely moments in this work were nicely brought off by the choir – one I noted at the conclusion of “Sordes ejus…” in which the spaces between low men’s and high women’s voices suggested to me the breadth and depth of mankind’s affliction. As well a beautifully osmotic impetus was generated by the first “Jerusalem, Jerusalem”, beginning with the tenderness of the tenors’ supplication, and gathering girth and intensity with “..convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum” right through the descending repetitions.
A brief word on Ernst Krenek’s setting, which, despite one or two strained moments, was brought off quite magnificently by the Consort – sounds filled with light and air at the beginning, out of which spaces grew harmonies nicely piquant and kaleidoscopic. Again, evocative realms were generated between lower and higher voices, even if the harmonies at each end were often tightly-worked – and I liked a long, rolling section during which women’s voices soared above the lines of momentum with single high notes, before descending to continue the flow. The sinuous lines of the “Jerusalem” section explored far-flung paths, Michael Stewart keeping the voices in touch with considerable skill and sensitivity. An unexpected delight!