Alastair Carey with the Clerkes of Christ Church, Oxford

English anthems and motets, including Byrd’s Mass for Three Voices and Purcell’s ‘Rejoice in the Lord alway’

Hugo Janáček, Alastair Carey, Gregory Skidmore (the Clerkes); Pepe Becker (sopano), Robert Oliver (viol), Douglas Mews chamber organ)

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Wednesday 19 August 2009

The former tenor and director of The Tudor Consort, Alastair Carey, who left Wellington to pursue a career in England found his way into the choir of Christ Church (it does not employ the word ‘college’, though it is one), Oxford. The choir is one of the several distinguished university choirs which include, variously, professional singers – ‘lay clerks’, boy choristers and undergraduates; it is the choir of the college after which Christchurch was named because John Robert Godley, one of the city’s founders, had studied there.

Carey teamed up with two of his colleagues, all of whom have also performed with other notable choirs in several countries, to take advantage of this connection; and the three singers had sung in Christchurch before arriving in Wellington.

As the backbone of the first half of the concert, they used Byrd’s Mass for Three Voices, punctuating it with anthems and motets by other Tudor and Restoration composers.

The impact of the three voices in their first piece, Sheppard’s ‘In manus tuas’, was revelatory, producing a sound of superb blend and stylish elegance, of a polish and finesse that is not common. The baritone, Gregory Skidmore, had a voice of particular beauty, and in the Gloria of Byrd’s Mass, it emerged, additionally, with robust energy.

Most of the intermediate pieces were by Dowland: songs of loss and distress, which provided an unleavened sequence of suffering and lament. Purcell’s two anthems, ‘Lord, what is man, lost man?’ and ‘What hope remains now he is gone?’ did little to lift the air of self-pity and tragedy, beautiful though they were. However, variety was present as most of the songs – as distinct from the a cappella mass – were accompanied by Robert Oliver on the bass viol with Douglas Mews on the chamber organ.

Carey himself took a solo role in Purcell’s ‘Flow my tears’, with organ accompaniment, producing attractive, sustained lines in a tone of subdued lamenting.

The second half moved forward a century, apart from the rather charming lullaby, ‘Quid petis, O fili’ by the shadowy Richard Pygott, to consist mainly of Purcell. In the Purcell songs, the three men were joined by soprano Pepe Becker whose voice was sometimes obscured by other more prominent parts, but often her striking timbre made an impact, for example in Purcell’s ‘Hear me, O Lord’ when voices and the instruments sounded in turn, creating an interesting narrative and texture. While in the next song, ‘Thy word is a lantern’, counter-tenor Hugo Janáček and Becker created diverting rhythms and varied timbres. The music was now distinctly more modern, the composer paying attention to vocal and instrumental timbres for their own sake.

A hymn, ‘O Lord my God’, by Purcell’s predecessor, Pelham Humphrey, who had an even shorter life than Purcell (he died at 26), drew attention to a great talent. New Grove remarks that Pelham’s personality ‘embodied much of the spirit of the Restoration court … a minimal respect for institutionalized morality…’. The hymn provided a long and impressive duet between tenor and baritone in quite adventurous style.

The familiar ‘Rejoice in the Lord alway’, introduced by a striking organ prelude, brought the bracket of Purcell to an end. The concert itself then moved into the 18th century to end with Boyce’s ‘The heavens declare the glory of God’, signs of gallant style, the singers proving equally comfortable in this very different music, with a bold passage from the baritone and Pepe Becker’s soprano rising clearly above the male voice textures.

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