The 16th century fashion for the 40-part motet: Tudor Consort sing Striggio and Tallis


The 40-part motets of Striggio and Tallis and other liturgical music by Tallis

The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart, with Peter Maunder (sackbut) and Douglas Mews (chamber organ)

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Hill Street

Saturday 23 July, 7.30pm

Tallis imitates Striggio
On Saturday’s Classical Chart, broadcast on Radio New Zealand Concert, presenter David Morriss took special pains to introduce the CD sitting at No 1; it was a 16th century motet by Italian composer Alessandro Striggio. The piece, sung on the top-ranked CD by I Fagiolini, was written to be sung by 40 distinct voices, each with his and her own part: ‘Ecce beatam lucem’.Striggio was court composer to the Medicis in Florence and the motet was written for the wedding of a Medici to the daughter of an Austrian noble family, so the music was appropriately composed by an Italian to words by a Viennese court poet (in Latin, naturally).

Morriss departed from custom by telling us that he was a member of The Tudor Consort which was to sing the piece in Wellington’s Catholic Cathedral that very evening, and suggesting that this live performance would be even better than that of I Fagiolini. Enough Wellingtonians (and perhaps others) heard the message to pour into the city on a cold, wet evening, making parking difficult in all the Thorndon streets in the neighbourhood of the Cathedral.

The basilica was packed and the unusual step was taken of opening the organ gallery for the overflowing crowd.

The Consort’s history with the Tallis motet
Now this was a special occasion for The Tudor Consort: 2011 is the choir’s 25th anniversary; at their 20th anniversary, for which founding director Simon Ravens had came out from Britain to conduct one of the concerts that celebrated the occasion. It was the one that included the 40-part motet, ‘Spem in alium’, by one Thomas Tallis; it was in St Mary of the Angel’s church (the first and rather spectacular concert of the mini-festival had been in The Great Hall of the former National Museum
now the school of arts of Massey University).

The Tallis motet had been among the works sung by the choir in its early years – it was conducted during a return visit by Simon Ravens in the International Festival of the Arts in March 1992 – when their concerts routinely filled whatever space they inhabited. I was at that performance, the first ever in Wellington and perhaps in New Zealand. Even more astonishing was the encore – a repetition of the whole motet.

Even without Ravens’ electrifying pre-concert talks, which were similarly packed out, the Tudor Consort’s renown was making a widespread impact.

A peak in Wellington’s musical life
It was just one of several things, however, that generated a high level of activity and excitement that pervaded Wellington’s musical scene at that time, which was bringing large numbers into choral and other concerts.

There were several contributing developments in the mid-1980s: the inauguration of the marvellous (at least in its first decade) international arts festival; the emergence of a vigorous Wellington opera company; the proliferation of chamber music; the increasing contribution to the city’s music by the two separate tertiary music schools through concerts and an annual opera production by each school; the determined growth and energizing of the Wellington orchestra; and the blossoming of new and the reinvigoration of many existing choirs, stimulated in part by Simon Ravens’s brilliant success with The Tudor Consort.

I might also add that the fact that The Evening Post allowed me, from 1987 to the end, and several assistant reviewers, to cover a great deal of the music, is likely to have been of real importance. Typically we contributed around a dozen music reviews each month.

The 40-part motets
Recent research has shown that it was probably the visit of Striggio to London in 1566/67 to sparked Tallis’s interest in writing something comparable.

At this concert the two motets were sung: the Striggio at the beginning and the Tallis at the end.The Striggio was accompanied by sackbut (Peter Maunder on the trombone) and organ (Douglas Mews); it began interestingly, with certain men’s voices penetrating over others, and it was this character that made the experience rather unique in choral performance. I suspect that conductor Michael Stewart’s concerns were with individual detail and not with a conductor’s normal concern: the blending of voices, and it was the very variety of timbres and voice qualities that were audible throughout both the 40-part motets. So the varying size and grain of voices were free from the usual discipline of uniformity. It added enormously to the delight of the whole performances.

During the Striggio all forty singers were arrayed across the front of the sanctuary, but for the Tallis, only 10 were in the front and the rest were spread along the side aisles so that the conductor spent his time turning from front to rear, from side to side, signaling the bewildering entries accurately.

Stewart in the front of his choir presents a lively image. Not given to overly fussy gestures, it is the raised arms that seem to be carry the music to the place where the composers may have imagined their music was directed. His demeanour reminded me of cartoons of Berlioz on the podium, clearly drawn by an artist filled with admiration for the music he was inspiring. Stewart’s gestures seemed to have a similar inspiring effect on his singers.

The Striggio motet was quite short, perhaps six or seven minutes (I didn’t time it) and, compared with the Tallis, with fewer extended passages in which one could sense the full complexity of all those individual voices. The earlier piece seemed to allow more concessions to the style of the usual polyphonic choral setting with far fewer parts apparent.

While the longer more confident lines of interweaving counterpoint of Tallis create an air of greater permanence and moment because there is a denser feeling in his writing.

The other Tallis pieces
Only about half of the 40-strong choir remained to perform the shorter ecclesiastical pieces by Tallis that occupied the rest of the concert.

One could have thought the various short liturgical pieces were merely fillers between the two motets that had surely attracted the crowd. But all those who came because they genuinely loved Renaissance polyphonic choral music would have enjoyed the variety of music that this one composer could bend his talent to: the more complex music for the Catholic ritual compared with the more straight-forward, vertical harmonies, of the pieces for the Anglican rite. The English words of the ‘Magnificat’ and ‘Nunc dimittis’, are set to music that is conscious of the congregation’s comprehension of the words. The organ accompaniment was significant, even in tempo, though not constant as with a traditional hymn; the ‘Nunc dimittis’ ended with a curiously unusual final cadence.

Being conscious of the difference between the Anglican and Catholic (and both Tallis and Byrd had to tread carefully through the switch-back, lethal, religious ferocity that punctuated their lives) threw a new light on the Latin settings of responsories and antiphons where the spiritual impact was sought more through purely musical characteristics – sonority, flowing contrapuntal lines, the pitting of high voices against a bed of men’s more earthbound voices. The two settings of ‘Salvator mundi’, offered an interesting contrast within the traditions of the Catholic liturgy, the second appearing more sonorous and enjoying the warmth of its polyphony, with perhaps a little more attention to the blending of voices – just to show they could do it.

The ‘Loquebantur variis linguis’ caught the attention through its carefully discordant setting of those words, suggesting the polyglot talents of the apostles. ‘Candidi facti sunt’ seemed to play with the listener by starting successively in three different manners, eventually giving space for the tenors’ central plainchant performance.

‘O sacrum convivium’ used the current styles of polyphony in more orthodox manner, and it allowed the audience to enjoy, if it had escaped them before, the chance to hear harmonies involving more sustained contrapuntal passages.

The last motet, ‘Te lucis ante terminum’, more like a hymn in three distinct stanzas, was set as plainsong in the outer two stanzas and polyphony in the second. These examples of Tallis’s music demonstrated further, both the composer’s versatility as he navigated the reefs in religious storms, and the continued, constantly renewal of the choir’s talented singers and their series of imaginative and enterprising directors.

We await a performance of Striggio’s ‘Ecco si beato giorno’, reported to be the mass for 40 to 60 voices from which motet was evidently drawn.

Wellington Orchestra’s unfinished business

UNFINISHED SYMPHONIES – Schubert, Mozart, Berio

SCHUBERT – Symphony No.8 in B Minor D.759 “Unfinished”

MOZART – Piano Concerto No.24 in C Minor K.491

MOZART – Concert Aria “Ch’io mi scordi di te….Non temer, amato bene” K.505

BERIO – Rendering (1989)

Vector Wellington Orchestra / Marc Taddei (conductor)

with: Diedre Irons (piano) and Margaret Medlyn (soprano)

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 23rd July 2011

This concert both played the game and bended the rules in the most interesting possible way – we had what’s become a common orchestral concert format of introductory work, concerto and symphony, but most interestingly constituted and creatively “placed”, so that the feeling of “the same old formula” was nicely avoided.

Basically, it was a Schubert/Mozart evening, but with a major contribution from a more-or-less contemporary voice. This was the Italian composer Luciano Berio, who in 1989 produced an orchestral work, Rendering, one which took the fragments of Schubert’s uncompleted work on a Tenth Symphony as the basis for a three-movement work. “Not a completion or a reconstruction” of the Symphony, declared Berio, but a “restoration” – and the work gave an uncanny feeling of two intensely creative impulses separated by two hundred years coming together for a kind of reawakening.

Instead of an overture beginning the concert we had an intensely dramatic performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, which, together with Mozart’s C Minor Piano Concerto K.491, suggested a preponderance of seriousness throughout the concert’s first half, a state of things which didn’t eventuate to the expected degree, I thought, more of which anon. The second half was similarly innovative, beginning with Mozart’s best-known Concert Aria for soprano, Ch’io mi scordi di te…Non temer, amato bene K.505, and concluding with Berio’s Rendering.

So, our expectations were nicely-tempered by these prospects; and the concert got off to the best possible beginning with a performance of the eponymous “Unfinished” Symphony which seemed akin to giving an old masterpiece a restoration job of its own – Marc Taddei encouraged his orchestra to play out in all departments, less of a rounded “Germanic” sound and more a thrustful, characterfully Viennese texture, lean and detailed, the brass occasionally risking obtrusiveness but generally making their presence refreshingly felt. With several on-the-spot contributions from timpanist Stephen Bremner, and wonderfully soulful playing from the winds (magnificent individually and as a group throughout the concert), the work here “spoke” with a directness and candour which too many routine performances over the years in concert and on record have sadly blunted. I ought to mention the strings, too, characteristically playing well above their weight (those “slashing” off-beat chords just before the second subject had such ear-catching focus and determination), pulsating the first movement with energy and life throughout. And I’ve never experienced a sense of the abyss opening up so ominously at the beginning of the development section as in this performance – those lower strings evoked such darkly disturbing realms as to bring home in no uncertain terms the tragic subtext beneath the music’s surface energies.

Those energies enabled the musicians to make more of the contrasts between the movements, with the opening of the Andante measured, mellow and easeful. Apart from a slight hiccup with the final note of her “big tune”, Moira Hurst’s clarinet playing sounded as beautifully heartfelt as we’d come to expect, the phrases echoed as memorably by the other winds, before being savagely pirated by baleful brass,whose forceful chordings over the string figurations were a striking feature of this performance. Near the end of the movement Taddei conjured from his players some gorgeously-coloured modulations (what Schumann called “other realms”) before the music resignedly returned to its destiny. If a couple of pairs of applauding hands in the auditorium broke the spell at the work’s end somewhat abruptly, the impulses were sound and their intrusion forgivable – I thought this was, through-and-through, a magnificent performance.

Mozart’s C Minor Concerto K.491 promised more storms and stresses, though it was largely the orchestra that agitated the musical argument, Diedre Irons’ piano playing taking a more stoic, in places relatively circumspect manner and aspect. Though the tensions weren’t repeatedly screwed to their utmost by such an approach, there were compensations in Irons’ detailed and rhapsodic exposition of the music, alive to every nuance of sensitive expression, apart from a measure or two towards the end of the movement where a brief moment of piano-and-orchestra hesitancy seemed to slightly blur the lines of the argument for a couple of seconds. In certain places, Irons, Taddei and the players superbly realized the music’s power, those dark coruscations of interchange at the heart of the development dug into with a will, while elsewhere, such as in the orchestral lead-up to the first movement cadenza, there was drama and thrust aplenty, soloist and orchestra each taking it in turns to galvanize the other.

Pianist and conductor played each of the concerto’s movements more-or-less attacca, which worked well, and emphasized the symphonic character of the work’s overall mood. The slow movement stole upon us almost out of nowhere, Irons’s playing allowing the melody to speak directly and simply to the heart, adding the occasional decoration to phrase-ends when the melody is repeated. The orchestral winds really showed their mettle in this movement, Taddei encouraging plenty of urgency and dynamic variation from the players to contrast with the piano’s simplicity, making for some glorious, chamber-music-like moments of lyrical interaction. After this, the “coiled spring” opening of the finale was like an awakening from a dream, the urgencies taking different shapes and forms, until the winds adroitly turned the argument towards open spaces and festive activity for a few measures, valiantly but vainly attempting to elude the demons that continued to stalk the music right to the end, through the piano’s chromatic scamperings and the orchestra’s desperate concluding flourish. I could have imagined sterner, bigger-boned piano playing in this work, but Irons’ approach brought a degree of vulnerability to the musical discourse, one that could be readily applied to human experience.

After the interval more Mozart, but with a difference – the adorable Concert Aria written for one of the composer’s favorite singers, Nancy Storace (there’s conjecture as to whether she and Mozart were lovers for a brief period, though the supposition is based on conjecture rather than proof – Mozart wrote in his dedication of the work, “…for Mme Storace and me…”). The Aria, Ch’io mi scordi di te…Non temer, amato bene K.505 is notable not only for its intense operatic expression, but for its beautiful piano obbligato, which, in a real sense, is a “second voice”. Margaret Medlyn told us in a program note of her early involvement with the work, an experience which she says has never left her. There was no doubt as to her intense involvement with the emotional range and depth of the aria – Medlyn is always extremely satisfying as a performer on that score – and if the tessitura at the very end sounded a bit of an ungainly stretch (rather like an ocean liner trying to negotiate a treacherous piece of water) the visceral effect of the singer’s total involvement was thrilling. Diedre Irons, Marc Taddei and the players gave Medlyn all the support she needed, making for an uncommonly involving vignette of intense listening and feeling.

And so to Luciano Berio’s Rendering, which would, I think, have been an intriguing prospect for most listeners, myself included. I liked the concept (explained by Marc Taddei before the work began, using the analogy of paint that had fallen off an original work) of a “restoration” of Schubert’s original sketches for an unfinished – yes, ANOTHER one! – symphony (there are also piano sonatas…..but we won’t go into that). Berio himself explained that his work was like modern restorations of medieval paintings, such as frescoes, which aim at reviving the old colours within, but without trying to disguise the wear-and-tear of time – meaning that gaps would inevitably be left in the original (as with the famous Giotto frescoes in Assisi). Berio, however, interpolated other material into these gaps (bits of “other” Schubert and bits of Berio himself), colouring the sounds with that of a celeste (of the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” fame), the delicate, rather disembodied effect imparting a somewhat “other-worldly” ambience to these passages, as if the composer’s shade was sifting through the assembled material, muttering his thoughts to himself.

The original material is very recognizably Schubert – the composer left a considerable amount of material (which was, for whatever reason, made public as recently as 1978 in Vienna, the date being the 150th anniversary of Schubert’s death). I scribbled down many impressions of the music, noting the reminiscences of works I knew – after the fanfare-like opening, near the beginning, there’s a lovely clarinet solo, reminiscent of the Third Symphony, for example – a bit later, the ‘cellos have a melody like that in the “other” Unfinished, to quote another example. But interspersed with these things, and the ghostly, celeste-led interludes, the music was quite forthright, even swashbuckling in places, and hardly, one would think, the utterances of somebody preparing for an early death.

The second movement, Andante, made a more sober impression, the oboe and bassoon playing adding plangent tones to the argument, the mood ennobled by a theme on the full orchestra, then suddenly taken to that “other world”, in this movement the sequences seeming to me in places to combine Schubert’s actual melodies with a counterpoint of Berio’s “renderings”, more so than in other parts of the work. A pizzicato chord sparking off furious activity suggested the finale’s beginning, featuring a tune with what sounded like a Scottish snap, and orchestral energies building up to the kind of joyous rhythmic repetition found in the finale of the Ninth Symphony. The “ghost music” and the composer’s more forthright original material vie for attention throughout, before the work ends with a big, muscular forte orchestral statement – emotional health in the midst of worldly privation!

What can one say to all of this, except Bravo! to Marc Taddei and the Vector Wellington Orchestra!