Gorgeous, satisfying a cappella singing from The Tudor Consort

Renaissance Influences VI: Modern Madrigals

Music by Morley, Gibbons, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, Monteverdi, Stanford, Lennon/McCartney, le Jeune, Josquin, Weelkes, Lassus, Gesualdo, Ravel, Pearsall

The Tudor Consort, directed by Michael Stewart, with choir soloists

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday, 31 August 2013, 7.30pm

A thoroughly enjoyable evening’s music was had by all who filled the downstairs of the church.  As usual, the beautiful blended sound and the accuracy of performance were captivating. All translations were printed in the programme, and for the most part, English words were readily communicated.

Four voices to each SATB part were further divided for some items.  Most members of the choir looked completely involved in their task.  The choir was placed well forward on the platform; the sound in the church was a delight.

The programme consisted of secular songs, all unaccompanied, dating from before, and including, the flourishing of the English madrigal in the late 16th century, through to an older and a modern song about smoking!   Although love as a theme seemed to produce melancholy, most of the songs performed were joyful.

The concert opened with a well-known Morley madrigal ‘Sing we and chant it’, sung with lovely full tone that varied in accordance with the words being sung.

Another well-known piece followed: Gibbons’s ‘The Silver Swan’.  This was sung by quintet of voices from the choir; as Michael Stewart said in one of his apt, and brief, spoken introductions, these madrigals would have been sung by groups of varying size in the periods in which they were written.  The soprano was a little flat on the top notes several times, but otherwise this much-loved song received a beautiful rendition.

It was followed by an intriguing version of the same madrigal by contemporary Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi.  His silver swan did not glide as happily as did its early seventeenth century counterpart, due to more use of minor keys and minor modulations than in the original, making for a more morose result, but it was pleasingly performed.

Two songs about smoking and tobacco were a surprise; first, ‘Come Sirrah Jack’ by Thomas Weelkes, written in the early  years after the weed’s introduction to Britain by Sir Walter Raleigh.  A trio of Michael Stewart (counter-tenor), Brian Hesketh (baritone) and Richard Walley (bass) extolled its virtues and joys with appropriate glee (and a pipe as prop!) in this complex madrigal, sung from memory.  What followed was a setting by Mäntyjärvi of government health warnings about smoking (in English, as was his ‘Silver Swan’).  There was amusing word-painting, in the best madrigalian style, for example ‘…a.. s l o w…. and painful death’.

A change of mood came with Morley’s ‘April is in my mistress’ face’, a happy and familiar madrigal.  Jumping forward over three hundred years, we then heard ‘La blanche neige’ by Poulenc. Its piquant harmonies and clear French language made for an enjoyable performance.

Back to the past, with Monteverdi’s ‘Quel augellin che canta’, about a bird burning with love, sung by a quintet from the choir in fine style.  These were admirable voices: Pepe Becker, Anna Sedcole, Richard Taylor, Jeffrey Chang and Brian Hesketh.  I found Jeffrey Chang particularly resonant as compared with many tenors.  The timing and rhythm were perfect, without benefit of conductor.

The quite exquisite ‘The Blue Bird’ by Stanford followed – a particular favourite of mine. It was sung very quietly, but with the appropriate crescendos and decrescendos.  The staccato notes were well observed as were awkward consonants such as ‘k’, and the vowels (as elsewhere in the concert) were absolutely uniform, making for smooth, even and balanced tone, unanimity, blend, and a thoroughly lovely sound.

The bird theme continued with ‘Blackbird’ by Lennon and McCartney, arranged by Daryl Runswick, the latter (like Bob Chilcott who featured later on) a ‘graduate’ of The King’s Singers.  The song featured whistling, and was an utter contrast to Stanford.  The song by Claude le Jeune (1528-1600) was ‘Le chant d’alouette’, about larks getting rid of a wicked cuckoo.  The song required plenty of verbal facility, and felicity, both of which these singers have in abundance.

One of the most well-known names from the early Renaissance is that of  Josquin des Prez (1450-1521); we heard his ‘El Grillo’, a delightful song about a cricket.  Wikipedia tells me that this type of song, the “frottola (plural frottole) was the predominant type of Italian popular, secular song of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. It was the most important and widespread predecessor to the madrigal.”  The singing featured splendid double fortes, and wonderful verbal fluency from the many sounds and syllables to be negotiated in imitating the cricket.

An item missed from the printed programme was Thule, by Weelkes, in two parts: ‘Period of Cosmography’ and ‘Andalusian Merchant’.  The grand title of the first part was explained to us as ‘the limits of map-making’, i.e. a region where one might
meet dragons, or fall off the world.  Volcanoes were a favourite theme in both parts, and the last two lines, about fear and love being more wondrous than exotic places and things, were common to both.

Love having been mentioned, we moved to a selection of  madrigals, ancient and modern, on the eternal theme.  Orlando di Lasso, or Orlande de Lassus, depending on whether you prefer the language of Italy, where he spent much of his life, or that of his Franco-Flemish birth, was represented by ‘Mon Coeur se recommende à vous’.

Gesualdo (described by Stewart as ‘centuries ahead of his time in his harmony’) gave us ‘Moro lasso’, then Josquin again: ‘Mille regretz’.  Then we went centuries ahead to Lennon/McCartney again , with Bob Chilcott’s version of ‘Yesterday’, with Richard Taylor as tenor soloist.  This was a very fine arrangement, and the solo part was touchingly conveyed, while the ‘doo-doos’ and ‘mm-mms’ of the choir were very effective.  The bracket ended with ‘Nicolette’ by Ravel.  Her toying with love was brief; she gave her heart to money.  There was more patter in this song, calling on the choristers skills at fast multi-syllabic utterance.

The concert ended with two songs by Robert Pearsall (1895-1856): ‘Who shall win my lady fair’ and ‘Lay a garland’.  The former was sung with a light touch, while the latter was simply gorgeous, completing a satisfying evening of quality a capella singing.


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