The Tudor Consort 30th anniversary with founder Simon Ravens

Thirtieth Anniversary concert
The Tudor Consort directed by Simon Ravens; Douglas Mews (organ)

John Taverner: Missa Gloria tibi trinitas
John Sheppard: Adesto Sancta I and II and Libera Nos I and II
Robert Johnson: In Nomine (organ)
Simon Ravens: Outwitted I and II

Cathedral of Saint Paul, Wellington

Saturday 13 February, 7:30pm

Simon Ravens was an English choral musician who, while an undergraduate, had become the conductor of an early music choir at the University of Wales; he came to Wellington in 1985 where he sang with the choir of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. He was soon taken with the idea of forming his own choir that would specialise in Renaissance music. It was named The Tudor Consort, modelled to some extent on famous ensembles such as The Tallis Scholars, and almost immediately, through Ravens’ knowledge and enthusiasm, won itself a rather special place in the New Zealand choral scene. In fact, it probably played a rather important role in the remarkable flourishing of choral music, and particularly Medieval and Renaissance music, that occurred in Wellington in the following 20 years or so.

Concerts by The Tudor Consort commonly filled the Anglican Cathedral, and other spaces, coming to specialize in performances that attempted a liturgical reconstruction of sacred music, to recreate the atmosphere and character of the music’s original context. They included memorable performances in the beautiful Erskine chapel in Island Bay, and an enactment of the French medieval Play of Daniel.

After Ravens returned to England in 1990, the choir determined to continue and with a succession of local choral specialists has managed to do just that over the following 25 years. In 2006, the choir staged a three concert festival to celebrate its 25th birthday in St Mary of the Angels and in the great hall of the former National Museum, one of them conducted again by Simon Ravens.

Ravens returns to celebrate 30 years’ survival, in fact triumph, if we are to accept Ravens’ flattering comment in his pre-concert talk, that the choir is even better than he left it 25 years before. This time, no liturgical reconstruction, no particular attention to atmospheric lighting (though it was convenient to be able to read the texts in the programme, even though the Latin was pretty-much muddied in the acoustic).

The concert was underpinned by Taverner’s masterpiece, Missa Gloria tibi trinitas. Taverner is perhaps the earliest of the Tudor composers whose names are reasonably familiar. Born about 1490, his adult life fell within the reign of Henry VIII. The mass has four parts – Gloria, Credo, Sanctus (and Benedictus) and Agnus Dei – there is no Kyrie, as it was not regarded as part of the ordinary of the Mass before the Reformation. The performance was punctuated with the original plainsong Gloria tibi Trinitas, and two settings of the motet Adesto Sancta Trinitas by John Sheppard who was some 20 years Taverner’s junior, as well as Sheppard’s Libera nos; and very interestingly, Ravens’s own settings of an epigram by American poet Edwin Markham, Outwitted.

The other interesting contribution was the organ interludes – two settings of In Nomine – played by Douglas Mews.

At this point I might comment that while the programme gave texts in both Latin and English, it offered little background about the pieces apart from the oblique remarks in Ravens’ overview of the music which dwelt mainly on the problem of performing and hearing music written in a very different era from our own. So there is much to be gained from pulling out reference books and exploring websites to gain better appreciation of what one had heard.

Outwitted opened the concert. It embodied a pithy, humane lesson: “He drew a circle that shut me out / Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. / But love and I had the wit to win / We drew a circle and took him in.” Advice perhaps for dealing with forms of fanaticism and cruelty today… Though its message is probably clear and pungent enough, the quasi-polyphonic setting, with voices used in striking combinations, demonstrated the rich possibilities of a centuries-old form to enhance a message for today.

The plainchant antiphon followed, nicely preparing us for the far more complex sounds of the Taverner mass. It is interesting that this wonderful mass by Taverner, so complex and musically elaborate, was written before the great works of Tallis and Byrd and all the better known English composers of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. Written for six voices – treble, alto (called ‘mean’ in the literature), two countertenors, tenor and bass – it is a work that offers challenges of all kinds to a conductor and singers; the mastery of balances between the parts and the sheer virtuosity demanded. Though the six voices (the choir consisted of 20 singers) weaved around the chant with wonderful skill, creating transcendent harmonies, each remained splendidly distinct.

One of the recurring delights, if not sources of wonderment, was the sustained high register demanded from the counter-tenors, with two voices in particular emerging as striking soloists – Richard Taylor and Phillip Collins – as well as from the trebles who are also required to maintain long, brilliant and very high passages. Soloists from the trebles and altos were also vividly conspicuous, though never detracting from a seemly liturgical spirit – Jane McKinlay, Anna Sedcole and Andrea Cochrane. There seemed to be something very modern in Taverner’s ability to create music that was not just technically impressive but also generated through long spans of polyphonic inspiration, an emotionally exciting response in the audience (if I may suggest that others responded as I did).

After the Gloria, Mews played Taverner’s In nomine and in the second half, after the Sanctus of the Mass, a second In Nomine by Robert Johnson. Though arguably not an instrument well adapted to music conceived for a Renaissance organ, he chose stops that were clear and sharply varied, and avoided generating anything resembling the tumult of a great Romantic organ.

The In nomine is curious. I read in Peter Phillips’s notes accompanying the Tallis Scholars’ recording of Taverner’s music, the following: “Originally in a spirit of wanting to flatter Taverner by copying him, composers of every generation up to that of Purcell, and including Purcell himself, tested their contrapuntal techniques by basing music on the ‘In nomine’ section of the Benedictus of Taverner’s Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas (‘Benedictus qui venit IN NOMINE Domini’).

John Sheppard’s two settings of Adesto Sancta were sung between parts of the Mass, comprising verses alternately in plain chant by men’s voices and polyphony: not as elaborate as Taverner though the polyphonic verses were delivered with great brilliance. His two settings for six voices of the Libera Nos, in which Ravens’ beat marked the slow minims of the music reflecting the plaintive nature of the words, concluded each half of the concert.

Though the Tudor Consort has enlightened and entertained Wellington audiences with revelations of early music (as well as music of other periods) for thirty years, for this special anniversary concert Simon Ravens chose works, most notably the great Taverner mass, which are important and mark a return to the heartland of the choir’s origins: perfectly appropriate for such an occasion. These memorable and moving performances fulfilled the hopes and intentions of the choir and its inspiring founding director and will undoubtedly rate as one of 2016’s musical highlights.


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