Fine choral concert spanning the centuries from The Tudor Consort

‘Sweet Sixteen’
The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart, with Richard Apperley (organ)

Schütz: Jauchzet den Herrn, SWV36
G. Gabrieli: Jubilate Deo
Benevoli: Confitebor
Strauss: Der Abend
Fasch: Kyrie
Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music
Mendelssohn: Hora est

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Saturday, 5 September 2015, 7.30pm

The first half that comprised perhaps normal Tudor Consort fare, the second half plunged into the nineteenth and even the twentieth centuries.

The title of the concert derived from the fact that most of the pieces performed were written for sixteen voices; some in two or four choirs, some for sixteen separate voices.  A few of the works were sung by 20 or 21 voices, as was the opening work, sung antiphonally, with 7 or 8 singers performing from the organ gallery, with the remainder at the front of the sanctuary.  The others were sung by 16 or 17 voices.

The Heinrich Schütz extract from his Psalms of David was a most joyful work, a setting of Psalm 100: Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth, and it was given full rein by the choir.

It was followed in like mood by Jubilate Deo written by Schütz’s teacher, Giovanni Gabrieli.  Again the
choir was in full voice, with joyful music-making using words from Psalm 100 and other Biblical passages.  The choir made good use of the acoustic of the church, with gorgeous tone, especially from the women, and a strong rhythmic pulse, despite the multiple interweaving parts.  Like the previous item, it was with organ – the Cathedral’s own organ.

Sitting well back in the Cathedral, on the raised seating, is my usual spot, because I like to see the choir, but also I find it good acoustically.  However, it sometimes proved a disadvantage to the hearing all of Michael Stewart’s spoken introductions, and sometimes the organ was too loud for the singers because of my proximity to it.

The third item was by an composer unknown to most of us; Oratio Benevoli (spelt by Wikipedia and Grove as Orazio Benevolo or Benevoli), who lived from 1605 to 1672, and was a Franco-Italian composer of large scaled polychoral sacred choral works.  His style was called the ‘colossal’ style, because of his use of many choirs together.

His setting was of Psalm 110, for four four-part choirs.  This was a big sing – both as separate choirs and as one entity, the singers faced many demands.  There were frequent solos.  The work opened with a cantor singing a capella; after his words, the organ joined the singers.  The individual voices varied in their ability to project the words and music; the massed sections were the most effective.  There is no doubt that this was pretty difficult, virtuosic music, with complex ornamenting melismas.  Towards the end, women’s voices sang together a series of harmonic suspensions that were electrifying; and the further concerted sections were exciting.

Now for something completely different.  After the interval, the first piece was ‘Der Abend’ from Zwei Gesänge by Richard Strauss.  The Tudor Consort singing Strauss!?  A poem by Schiller was the text, about evening, love and rest. The unaccompanied choral song opened with two voices singing an octave apart.  As the programme note stated, the music did indeed sound orchestral – it was written between Also sprach Zarathustra and Don Quixote, extremely colourful tone poems.

At times the tonality was hard to pin down – parts entered in seemingly different keys from what preceded or accompanied them.  Such was the complexity the words were hard to identify.  The different timbres of the voices did not always serve the words or the music well.  Nor did the melismatic treatment of the words assist in making them out.  On the whole, the men’s voices blended better than did the women’s.  The ending set the words (translated) ‘Ascending in the sky with quiet steps / comes the fragrant night; / sweet love follows. / Rest and love! / Phoebus, the loving one, rests.’  The music here was appropriately dreamy and lovely.

Carl Fasch (1736 – 1800) was, Michael Stewart told us, influenced by Benevoli, and in turn influenced Felix Mendelssohn, whom we were to hear later.  Fasch’s ‘Kyrie’ from his Missa a 16 voci was written for the Berlin Singakademie, which he founded in 1791.  It was the first mixed voice choir in Germany, consisting of amateur singers.

That did not mean it was an easy sing, despite being the first work he presented to his choir.  It was sung with organ (though originally with instrumental accompaniment).  Near the beginning I wondered if it was the organ or the choir that was slightly out of tune; it had to be the latter.  After the more dramatic music we had already heard this piece sounded rather stodgy.

Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, written for 16 different soloists in honour of Sir Henry Wood’s fiftieth anniversary as a conductor, is as sublime as is the blank verse of William Shakespeare, which it sets.  The wonderful speech by Lorenzo to Jessica in Act V Scene i of The Merchant of Venice has its own music, but Vaughan Williams does not obscure this.  The opening words ‘How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!’ is evoked in the calm, flowing music.  The timbres of the organ do not enhance the vocal lines as does the original orchestral setting.

Shakespeare’s reference to the stars (‘There’s not the smallest orb…like an angel sings’) recalls the belief in the music of the spheres, which the composer echoes. Towards the end, where Shakespeare has a kind of new start to the verse: ‘Music! Hark!…’, Vaughan Williams appropriately reiterates the music of the opening lines.  The ending ‘Becomes the touches of sweet harmony.’ Is sublime, and was beautifully rendered.

When singing as a choir, the Consort was very fine, but the solos were very variable in quality.  The words could have been clearer, but again, my proximity to the organ may have been a factor.

To end, we heard Hora est by Mendelssohn.  The piece was inspired by Fasch’s work, with organ ‘ad libitum’.  The tuning seemed a little suspect at the opening.  The first section, ‘Hora est…’, was an antiphon for male voices only, then the women join for the response ‘Ecce apparebit…’.  This was difficult music, and the result was not the best I have heard from The Tudor Consort.  However, the brightness of the women’s response to the darkness of the antiphon certainly created a jubilant effect.

It may have been the diversity of the programme’s composers and styles of music, but the concert was out of a drawer further down the cabinet than is the case with The Tudor Consort’s usual performances.  The audience was rather smaller than we have come to expect for the Consort; there were competing classical music events.

Although the printed programme had its usual excellent notes and meticulous full translations, it was undated, and nowhere acknowledged the huge contribution of Richard Apperley at the organ.

It was an innovative and interesting idea to present a variety of works for 16 voices. In the event, I did not feel that all the items came off equally well, but it was an enjoyable and instructive concert nevertheless.

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