The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart
By Popular Request
Frank Martin: Mass for Double Choir – Kyrie
De Lassus: ‘Matona mia cara’
Josquin des Prez: Missa ‘L’homme armée’ – Gloria
John Dunstaple: ‘Veni sancte spiritus’
Stanford: The Bluebird
Pärt: Summa (Credo)
Allegri: ‘Miserere mei’
Vaughan Williams: Mass in G minor – Sanctus/Osanna I/Benedictus/Osanna II
Byrd: ‘Ave verum corpus’ and Agnus Dei from Mass for Four Voices
Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Hill Street
Saturday 30 May 2014
It seemed a good idea: invite their subscribers/audiences to suggest music to be sung at the next concert, which should ensure a good audience, comprising those who’d submitted ideas and lots of others, who would be curious about the result of the game.
But it was a cold night, though fine and clear, and maybe there was something unmissable on television, and since I’d arrived about 7.15pm I waited for the church to fill. It didn’t.
Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir is probably one of his best known works, yet he held it back for forty years, feeling that it was too private a communication with his deity to be exposed to the rude masses (my gloss). The ‘doubleness’ of the music refers to the number of parts, yet it was curious to have it sung by this pretty small choir (16).
The Kyrie opens with what is described as a ‘quasi-plainchant’, spare and ethereal but it soon expands to involve the whole choir, and the two pleas ‘Kyrie eleison’ and ‘Christe eleison’ are in stark contrast between calm beauty and serious agitation. The singers dramatized it with a feeling of driving conviction.
There could hardly have been a greater contrast with the next piece, of 450 years earlier. A delightfully bawdy little ditty, ‘Matona mia cara’, from the 16th century master of religious polyphony, Orlando de Lassus (you can take your choice of variations from Roland de Lassus, Orlande de Lassus, Orlando di Lasso, Orlandus Lassus, or Roland de Lattre). Though he was equally famous for his chansons.
This was a song sung by a German lancer who attempts to woo an Italian girl in very basic Italian muddled with Spanish and German, employing ill-understood, suggestive words that just might have succeeded with a fairly knowing and susceptible lady. Even the onomatopoeia had an erotic ring to it and the choir evidently enjoyed themselves. So did we.
The music moved another century back to a Mass by Josquin des Prez, one of two based on the widely popular L’homme armée, this one on the sixth tone, in other words the Aeolian Mode, equivalent to A minor. They chose the Gloria which is opened by a tenor followed by sopranos and altos, and the tune lent the setting a character that modern ears could more easily absorb than is often the case with Renaissance polyphony; this in spite of the sophistication of the counterpoint. Most striking perhaps was the lengthy Amen in canonic style. Even more striking however was the sheer skill and idiosyncratic familiarity of the choir, including the voices that were given solo episodes here and elsewhere.
Then came a motet by English composer John Dunstaple (most of us are probably more familiar with the spelling Dunstable) who lived half a century before Josquin: Veni sancte spiritus, ‘Come holy spirit’. (You’d expect both the adjective sancte and the noun Spiritus to have the same ending. Sancte is the vocative case, used to address people, Spiritus must also be in that case but with the ending ‘–us’ is presumably a fourth declension word where the vocative takes the same ending, as the nominative case.)
Here was the only intrusion by non-voice in the concert: bass Timothy Hurd (otherwise known as the City Carillonist) produced a tenor dulzian (or dulcian), the predecessor of the bassoon, though I suppose the several smaller members of the dulcian family might be closer to the shawm, the oboe’s ancestor. This lent the music a very distinct quality, in addition to the interest of the structure and rhythm of the short line of the Medieval Latin verses that recall parts of the Carmina Burana.
Then a leap five hundred years toward the present with a short and lovely part-song, The Bluebird, by Stanford, evocative and a little sentimental, where soprano Erin King sang the touching solo part. With Arvo Pärt’s Summa, his setting of the Credo, came the only piece from the late 20th century: faced with the words, I was struck for the first time by the way the music seems to move, or not move, in reflection of the words, denying the singers much opportunity for tonal or dynamic variety. The choir performed immaculately.
By this stage it had struck me that while following suggestions of music for this concert, choir director Stewart had arranged them following the order of the Ordinary of the Mass, interspersed with motets and songs that could be considered as representing the Proper of the Mass.
The second half began with Allegri’s Miserere, with John Beaglehole singing the tenor part from the pulpit while four other soloists from the choir sang from the gallery. But for the first time in the evening the performance revealed characteristics that suggested a lack of confidence, even a lack of rehearsal that appeared in their handling of ornaments and even occasionally with intonation. There was no other item in the programme where I felt the choir had not quite the measure of the style of the early Italian 17th century.
The following movements from Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor also called for a group of soloists whose performances were an impressive demonstration of the strength and polish of the choir’s individual voices. The Vaughan Williams Sanctus and Benedictus were marked by the most scrupulous intonation, articulation of varied tone and tempo changes.
Byrd’s Ave verum corpus for nine voices brought the choir back to its home territory, in a truly beautiful performance and, following the order of the Catholic liturgy, the concert ended with the Agnus Dei from the Mass for Four Voices. It found them in complete sympathy with the idiom, comfortable: the lines flowing and weaving with the ease that comes from familiarity and confidence.
The concert deserved a much larger audience.