The Tudor Consort, directed by Michael Stewart
Adam Concert Room, Victoria University
Friday 20th February, 2009
For years performers of what we regard as “classical” music took an extremely formal and rigid attitude towards live concert presentation. Historical precedents regarding concert-giving, such as the patronage-driven pragmatic baroque example, the chaotic classical performance era and the flamboyance of the romantic age were all brought to heel during the nineteenth century by martinet-like reactionaries such as Hans von Bulow and Clara Schumann, whose loathing of any extra-musical elements in concert-giving spawned an age of ritualistic formality which reached its apogee in the mid-twentieth century.
Concerts stopped beg pragmatic, chaotic or flamboyant affairs, and developed an ethos of elitist worship of “holy art”, for which one dressed and behaved accordingly. Even today, classical musicians still mostly cling to the formal dress and “pure” music-making presentations that were entrenched for much of last century’s concert-going – rather like the old Catholic Latin Mass, one could go to a classical concert anywhere in the world and obey a pre-ordained code of dress and behaviour and feel completely at home with the proceedings.
More recently, musicians and impresarios have begun to venture away from a purist approach to classical music performance, with interesting results – one thinks of things like violinist Nigel Kennedy’s presentation of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” Op.8 concerti and various modern music-theatre treatments accorded works like the Bach Passions.
Bringing more theatrical elements such as lighting and movement into traditionally static musical presentations isn’t as new as one might think – after all, Haydn did it back in the eighteenth century with his “Farewell” Symphony – but such innovations are more associated with “new” or contemporary music performance. So, it was refreshing and stimulating to encounter the Tudor Consort’s creative evocations of sun and moon, day and night, through imaginative lighting and effective movement, for their Songs of the Sun and Moon presentation at the Adam Concert Room at Victoria University.
Another element infrequently associated with concert presentation, though again, by no means unknown, is the spoken word. For this concert, it was an interesting and effective idea to intersperse readings, properly and winningly delivered by various Consort members, of a variety of poems among the musical items similarly celebrating the juxtaposition of sun and moon, and day and night. It seemed to me that the solo speaking voices were successfully able to create alternative kinds of musical inflections which contrasted pleasingly with the sung items.
The concert began dramatically, with the Consort members entering carrying lighted taper-like torches, suggesting a monastic-like atmosphere in which to perform the opening item, an Introit Illuxerunt, which featured deliciously sinuous lines of sound, seemingly floating towards us across the ages in the semi-darkness. Illumination was then forthcoming with Longfellow’s poem Sunrise on the Hills which preceded a beautiful Easter hymn by Orlando de Lassus, The dawn’s light reddens, one whose antiphonal effects played with a kind of “concerto grosso” for voices mode, setting solos, and smaller groups against the full choir. Set guilelessly against such antiphonal skill was Katherine Mansfield’s charmingly direct child’s poem about the sun, accompanied by ambient lighting reflecting the shifts of perspective suggested by words and music.
William Walton’s setting of St. Francis of Assisi’s Cantico del sole began with the utmost tenderness, gradually radiating gentle warmth, before irrupting jazzily, lines thrusting jaggedly upwards, then grasped by the composer into tightly-worked handfuls of harmonies that never lost their grip throughout. The voices attacked the upward thrustings fearlessly, while keeping their timbral poise and harmonic direction admirably.
Walton’s visceral physicality contrasted tellingly with the other-worldliness of fellow-Englishman Thomas Tallis, whose shortish, but evocative O nata lux de lumine almost immediately had its listeners in thrall in this performance, despite a slightly uncomfortably-tuned harmonic moment towards the end.
Further contrast was in store with David Hamilton’s Lux aeterna, music with Ligeti-like lines spaced-out across vistas, tones melting into glissandi, and clustering together for warmth and companionship, creating some exquisite colour-changes. After such kaleidoscopic riches, the Gregorian Chant “Alleluia – Candor est lucis aeternae” was like a plunge into cool water, with the long, sinuous lines like subterranean undercurrents, timelessly undulating, and with a quality that seemed at once both to beseech and command. The Goethe poem which followed returned us to a world of sentiment and bourgeoise romance!
After an “Evening Song” by Rheinberger, richly and sonorously delivered, the choir turned its attention to Holst’s richly-conceived “The Evening Watch”, a work couched in appropriately mystical tones and harmonies, characterizing the poet Henry Vaughan’s dialogue between the body and the soul. Beginning with a tenor solo, the piece explores in places a world so still and transparent of texture that one catches one’s breath in order to listen, before the musical denouement swells like a sunrise towards the end. It was all nicely managed by the Consort, if a little “reined in”, lacking for me that last ounce of fervour and abandonment which would have overtaken our sensibilities as listeners completely. But the delightfully wry Ben Jonson poem that followed made for a more coherent flow as a result of this circumspection, difficult though it was for some of us to get Britten’s famous setting of the verses our of our heads when listening to the speaker.
The two settings which concluded the presentation seemed to draw whole worlds of time and space together, the Tallis Hymn To Thee Before the Close of Day ageless and immediate at one and the same time in its appeal, while the Ligeti setting of verses characterising Night and Morning exploring both the psychological “interior” of night as a human metaphor, and the tumbling externals of daybreak, complete with raucous cock-crowings and awakening bells – a brilliant and radiant way to conclude a concert..
Overall, the presentation was a great success for the Tudor Consort and Michael Stewart, considering the challenges set by the programme, plus the extra distractions afforded by the introduction of diverse elements. If very occasionally a tone sounded a shade raw, or a harmony wasn’t honed to quite the level of the Consort’s usually impeccable standards, it didn’t impair our appreciation of that sense of interaction the musicians sought to convey between natural cycles of things and the music that sprang from their inspiration.