The Tudor Consort, Directed by Michael Stewart
Music for Holy Week
Lamentationes Hieremiae Feria sexta in Parasceve à 5, Orlande de Lassus
Et egressusest, Manuel Cardoso
Da Jesus an den Kreuze stund , Michael Praetorius
Stabat Mater, John Browne
Christus factus est, Felice Anerio
Incipit lamentation Jeremiae prophetae, Thomas Tallis
In monte Oliveti, Sarum chant
De lamentation Jeremiae prophetae, Thomas Tallis
Ne irascaris Domine satis/Civitas sancti tui, William Byrd
Wellington Cathedral of St Paul
Saturday 12 April 2014
This Lenten programme for Holy Week offered some acknowledged treasures of Renaissance a
cappella choral music, with the opening item being the first lesson for Good Friday from the five voice setting of Lassus’ Lamentations. It was a beautifully controlled, contemplative interpretation which established an atmosphere of deep lament, and it was given a breadth of tempo that enabled the cadences to resolve clearly in the echoing acoustic of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Yet there was always momentum to carry the effortless, floating sound through the space in the idioms so indelibly associated with the great European cathedral choirs.
The following Et egressus est by Portuguese composer Manuel Cardoso continued a similar contemplative approach, with the interweaving lines of polyphony beautifully balanced. The prophet’s closing admonition to Jerusalem to “return to the Lord your God” was not a fiery tub-thumping catapult, but a moving plea in keeping with the somber reflection of the earlier verses. The short chorale of Praetorius is set for double choir although they sing simultaneously almost throughout, so their distinctive parts were not distinguishable from the body of the nave where I was sitting. This did not seem any drawback however, and the work highlighted the warm, rich tones this ensemble produces so well.
The Stabat Mater dolorosa is by composer John Browne, of whom nothing is known other than his ten surviving works in the Eton Choirbook, which is considered a most prized collection of early Tudor music. The programme noted that Browne’s style “typically pits a group of solo singers against lush full choir sections, and employs incredibly florid rhythms”. The spare sound of the solo group sections was, in fact, a very effective mechanism to provide a contrasting relief from the unbroken, full bodied sound of the tutti group which, in a text of this length, can become overwhelming, especially in the swirling reverberation of spaces like the Eton chapel and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Clear diction is not attainable in such places; what is so effectively provided is the colour and mood of worshipful devotion created by the music, where even the humblest medieval peasant, illiterate and ignorant of Latin, might perceive the brush strokes of the Celestial Painter in myriad hues.
After the interval we heard the brief Christus factus est from the pen of Anerio, who followed Palestrina in 1594 as official papal composer, the most prominent position for a composer in Rome. The writing and singing was full of richness, and this work actually provided the clearest diction of the evening.
The lamentations of Jeremia were performed with a brief Sarum chant setting of Jesus’ prayer In Monte Oliveti interposed between verses 1-2 and verses 3-5, and in Tallis’s original scoring for Alto, two Tenors and two Basses. This was a good programming choice, as the lower voice registers provided a contrast with the constant ringing soprano sound, which benefits from intermittent relief in such reverberant spaces when it is not broken up by spoken or intoned liturgy. It also gave the chance to appreciate better the quality of the alto and male voices in the group. Michael Stewart’s direction here again amply demonstrated that he understood how best to complement the acoustics of St. Paul’s, enhancing the music with the pauses and intervals of silence it needs if its artistry is to be fully realised.
The evening closed with Byrd’s wonderful motet Ne irascaris Domine, which the programme described as “one of a number that Byrd wrote to reflect the tribulations of the persecuted Catholic population during the reign of Elizabeth I”. This plaintive text can be read as a cry of despair from ‘papists’ living in Protestant England at the time, lamenting the desolation of their fate and pleading for God’s mercy. It is full of rich, full writing, where the soprano lines do not stray into the upper stratosphere, yet the choir produced a beautifully balanced, floating sound enhanced, as always, by impeccable intonation and wonderfully shaped phrasing and cadences.
I found myself pondering the immense power of words, music, and traditions to shape our views of historical events. Holy Week is a time marked by the church for contemplating the crucifixion and its significance for Christianity. What was surely a hideously sordid crowd puller, and the most painful method of Roman execution, has been transformed by such words, music, and traditions into an occasion of spiritual contemplation clothed in transcendent holiness. The chaste white altar drapery, the simple ‘candle’ lights borne by the choristers, and the paired arches of palm fronds in the nave all helped set a scene that was played out with superb artistry and wonderful musicianship by Michael Stewart and The Tudor Consort. Wellington is very privileged to have opportunities such as this to hear the European choral tradition presented at its very best.