The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart
Tomás Luis de Victoria: Officium Defunctorum
Alonso Lobo: Motet: Versa est in luctum
Sacred Heart Cathedral
Saturday, 31 October 2015, 7.30pm
The Tudor Consort is noted not only for wonderful singing; it is also noteworthy for its innovative programming.
This time, an almost full Sacred Heart Cathedral heard music of Victoria. It is not infrequently that we hear short choral works by this composer, but a Requiem Mass extended by liturgical items such as the Collect, the Epistle, the Gospel and others, was new. These liturgical movements were either plainsong settings (Gregorian chant), or were chanted on one, or a series of notes. The programme was utterly appropriate for Hallowe’en, i.e. the day before All Saints’ Day, and two days before All Souls’ Day.
The choir of 17 members sang first from the crossing, i.e. the aisle across the church directly in from the door, between the front two-thirds and the rear third of the church. The choir was arranged as two choirs, facing each other. This arrangement made it easy for those in the rear part of the church to hear clearly.
In a radio interview during the week, Michael Stewart had told Eva Radich that the music was easy to sing, but the hard part was demonstrating the drama and intensity where required. The entire concert was sung in Latin, unaccompanied, and texts and translations were provided in the printed programme. Although advertised as a candlelight performance, there was sufficient other light to enable the programme notes and translations to be read easily.
The choir was immediately impressive, with great attack, pungent voices, words clear, and each part having equal weight, in this version of words from the Biblical book of Job. For the second movement, the hymn ‘Placare Christus servulis’, the voices formed as one choir; the attack was not quite so secure here, as the singers processed forward, the males intoning the hymn in unison.
Now at the sanctuary steps, the treble voices began the ‘Requiem aeternam’ Introit in unison, followed by all the voices in rich and diverse harmony. There was some fine tenor sound, but the blend was excellent. The music was ethereal at times, with very high writing for the sopranos, yet substantial too. I found the concert full of such dualities.
The Kyrie followed, featuring wonderfully sustained long-drawn-out syllables. The unanimity of tone and dynamics was remarkable. Then the chanted Collect, where the solo voice was not totally secure, but the voice chanting the Epistle was better.
After this came the Gradual, with the opening words of the Requiem. This musical setting had quite a different character from the earlier sung movements. The women’s chanted parts were very clear. The Tract which followed had the men chanting in perfectly timed unison, the extraordinary melisma (decoration of the syllables) being an absolute delight.
The Sequence consisted of the long thirteenth-century hymn ‘Dies Irae’, by Thomas of Celano (c.1200–c.1265), who was an Italian friar of the Franciscan Order, a poet, and the author of three hagiographies about Saint Francis of Assisi. It began with robust chanting from the men, then the trebles joined in, still in unison. Maintaining such extended unison is not easy, but these singers make it seem so. There was plenty of expression, releasing the drama inherent in the words of the poem.
After the interval, the Gospel was chanted, then in the Offertory, the women intoned before all joined, all six parts singing in rich polyphony. There were splendid contrasts from fortissimo to pianissimo, and careful and uniform articulation of syllables. Beautiful chords brought the movement to a conclusion.
After the chanted Preface, the Sanctus revealed gorgeous harmonies. The singing here was in blocks of sound rather than polyphony. The Antiphon was chanted, to be followed by a multi-part Benedictus. This was again very different from earlier music, and most impressive. The precentor for the Pater Noster used many different tones in the chant, rather than chanting on one note, or just a few.
Agnus Dei utilised simple intervals to start with, then became increasingly complex. The Communion that followed was notable for magical interweaving of parts. It was solemn yet joyful. The purity of the treble voices was amazing.
The Post-Communion had a more plaintive tone, but assured also. The music was resonant, but in this building does not become too resonant. For the Absolution, the choir moved to stand behind the altar, in the sanctuary. It was followed by ‘Libera Me’ characterised by rich textures, sonorous cadences and complex polyphonic lines. The second and third verses employed fewer voices. Then in the fourth, the spread of voices from top to bottom of the stave was remarkable. The first verse was repeated, with its broad, grand setting. The Kyrie at the end was beautiful, with delicious chords from all the moving parts together.
The final ‘In Paradisum’ chant was simple and effective, and it was followed by Lobo’s polyphonic Motet. It was contemplative, with fully sustained tone that was pure, yet had character and warmth, the singing reverential yet rich and robust. There were wonderful suspensions and cadences.
In all, this was a splendid performance, and apart from very occasional stridency in the tenors, most accomplished. The music was uplifting and inspiring; the audience was rapt (here, this word is not hyperbole) and showed enthusiastic appreciation.