Puer natus est nobis – Christmas music for the ages from the Tudor Consort

The Tudor Consort presents:

Puer natus est nobis – (A Boy is Born to Us)

Christmas Music from the Renaissance

Music by Anon., Lambe, Byrd, Guerrero, Tallis, Palestrina, Mouton and de Lassus

The Tudor Consort

directed by Michael Stewart

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Hill St., Wellington

Saturday 7th December, 2013

The great liturgical feast-times throughout the year are simply wonderful for music and music-making, as there’s plenty of added value in terms of “something in the air”, as with the Tudor Consort’s recent “Puer natus est nobis” (A Boy is born to us) concert at Wellington’s Sacred Heart Basilica.

Opening the concert with a beautifully-wrought example of Sarum Chant, the choir readily evoked both a stillness, and the steady, inexorable beat of time with its processional throughout the body of the church. The voices resoundingly floated the words and tones of the text bearing the Advent tidings, all the while encircling and passing through the congregation/audience, and then ascending to the sanctuary. I thought it a wondrous and cherishable evocation.

Director Michael Stewart then welcomed us to the concert, making a point of assuring us that the singers had paid particular attention – with the help of a “expert” whose name I can’t recall, but who was apparently present at the concert! – to Middle English pronunciation of the older texts. Certainly the sounds took on an added vitality when authentically expressed and coloured, somehow enlarging our imaginative capacities for appreciating the distances in space and time this music was making via these performances to reach us.

I loved the more angular and less moulded effect of these vocalizations – the 15th Century anonymous carol There is no Ros had an enchantingly “modal” flavor, the variation between solo and ensemble voices creating beautifully terraced intensities between verses. And the more robust male-voice Hayl Mary, full of grace from the same period took on a similarly penetrating period awareness, the voices seeming to relish the salty tang of those dialects.

In the concert’s first half there were two pieces written by Walter Lambe, both found in the famous Eton Choirbook – the first, Stella caeli (A Heavenly Star) Michael Stewart admitted to not REALLY being a Christmas song, but was a piece he really liked. Certainly the long, rolling lines of polyphonic blending made an impressive effect, a kind of crescendo-like build-up towards a sequence of dissolution and gradual regrouping, line-by line, complete with unexpected dynamics that gave the music a dramatic, almost theatrical feeling.

My description of the piece is, of course, based on the Consort’s performance of its wonderful textures and contouring, as with the same composer’s similarly dramatic (and this time unequivocally seasonal) Nesciens mater, with its gleaming soprano lines and contrasting male-voiced sequences towards the end – again, great and satisfying intensity was generated by the singers and their director in this glorious music.

We would have felt cheated without the Coventry Carol in a concert of this kind, and the Consort didn’t disappoint, giving the heart-rending story plenty of poignancy and bite in appropriate places – hackles appropriately rose when the men’s voices characterized King Herod’s murderous brutality with black, stentorian utterances. More delicate and softer in outline was Sweet was the Song, from a source I’d never heard of previously, William Ballet’s “Lute Book” c.1600, a piece with a soaring soprano line and rich harmonies.

William Byrd’s joyous and energetic evocation This Day Christ was Born rang as resplendently as church bells, with a veritable hubbub of voice-writing conveying great excitement and joy among mankind, here beautifully realised, along with an amazingly stratospheric soprano line. “Good old Byrd, eh?” was the immediate response of my companion at the concert, who had sung in various choirs, and thus encountered (and enjoyed) the composer’s music as a performer.

After the interval our ears were largely transported across the English Channel and into Europe, with a quick trip back for a piece by Thomas Tallis at one point. To begin we were treated to two enchanting 16th Century “dance” carols from Spain, the first the anonymous Verbum Caro factum Est  and, following immediately, Francisco Guerrero’s A un niño llorando al yelo (To a boy crying in the cold). Back to England we were then taken, for Tallis’s intense and tightly-knit Videte miraculum (Behold the miracle), plainsong lines alternating with closely-knit harmonies, and melismatic phrases repeated to hypnotic effect.

Then came music from the great Palestrina, firstly his Hodie Christus natus est, occasioning a double choir formation and featuring festive energies and colorful exchanges. What wonderful roulades of sound from the women! – gleaming soprano lines culminating with joyous “Noels” at the end!  Nobler, and more intense, was O Magnum Mysterium, music charged with a kind of noble spirituality. Though the question-and answer “Quem vidistis”  (Whom did you see?) sequence took up the second part, the choir had returned to its normal formation, the writing doing the work of differentiation between the voices, with their skillfully layered intensities and beautiful finishing “Alleluias”. Lovely performances.

Two more names to conjure with at the concert’s conclusion – firstly Jean Mouton, who was born in 1459, the best part of a century earlier than Orlande de Lassus. Mouton’s Quaeramus cum pastoribus (Let us seek with the shepherds) was another “question-and-answer” work, firstly describing the scene and then questioning the Christ-child, expressed in music with gentle, open textures and comfortably-shared lines. More complex and energetic was Orlande de Lassus’s Resonet in laudibus (Let praises resound), one whose title gives a clue as to its musical character, or characters, as here, across the different verses – the Consort’s singing encompassed the opening’s sturdy declamations as whole-heartedly as were treated the different variations, the final sequence returning to great jubilation with the words “Magnum nomen Domini Emmanuel” (Great is the name of the Lord Emmanuel) – an appropriate and celebratory way to finish the concert.

A small point at the concert’s end – had Michael Stewart allowed his choir to remain in the Sanctuary after taking his bow, retired for a moment, and then returned, we could have acclaimed the Consort’s and its director’s performances for even longer! They certainly deserved it.







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