Tudor Consort’s 30th Anniversary Concert a selection of treasures

The Tudor Consort presents:
(30th Anniversary Concert Series 2016)


The Tudor Consort: Amanda Barclay, Jane McKinlay, Anna Sedcole, Phoebe Sparrow,Emma Drysdale, Michelle Harrison, Megan Hurnard, Sabrina Malcolm,John Beaglehole, Jon Ruxton, Richard Taylor, Simon Christie, David Houston, Timothy Hurd QSM, Matthew Painter
Music Director: Michael Stewart

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St., Wellington

Saturday 5th November, 2016

This concert marked something of a return to the “helm” for the Tudor Consort’s Music Director, Michael Stewart, who’s been working behind the scenes for most of the past year, preparing and pre-rehearsing the ensemble for its concerts with no fewer than three guest conductors. Unfortunately I didn’t make it to the pre-concert talk, which perhaps might have explained more about the “vive la difference” choices for this evening’s programme, though I’m certainly not complaining at the panoply of riches we were offered throughout the concert.

Basically, the first half of the programme presented music written to celebrate love, featured in both sacred and secular contexts. The “sacred” were expressions of fervent homage made to the Blessed Virgin (using plenty of pagan-goddess imagery, incidentally), while the “secular” depicted the associated joys and sufferings of human love.

Apart from the opening “Ave Virgo Sanctissima” by Francisco Guererro, which revisited the “Marian-worship” of the concert’s first part, the second half confronted love-related suffering, death and loss, again setting sacred and secular side-by side, and concluding with a ghostly visitation representing a kind of resonant echo from the spirit world.

Doubtless, the euphoric opening to the programme, with Gerald Finzi’s scalp-prickling “My spirit sang all day”, was intended as a kind of “mirror” image to the concert’s conclusion, Vaughan Williams’ “The Lover’s Ghost”, whose forcefully spectral climax seemed almost to mock any joy and happiness promised by the blandishments of love.

Any such hollow finalities were certainly far from the verdant thrustings of the voices here proclaiming the elation of joyful love, Finzi’s writing capturing the text’s delighting in a lover’s besottment in no uncertain terms. We were galvanised, caught up in what seemed like a rush of blood to the head, by the Consort’s full-throated performance.

By contrast, the performance of Antoine Brumel’s Sicut ilium, one of three items whose text was taken from the Bible’s Song of Songs, verses attributed to Solomon, and regarded as the most sensual and erotic of Biblical writings, had the effect of a gently-opening flower, with beautifully-gradated dynamics and soaring soprano lines. More elaborate, both in text and setting was Ego flos campi , by the splendidly-named Clemens non Papa (the name literally meaning “Clemens, but not Pope” – presumably, to distinguish the composer, Jacobus Clemens, from either a poet of the same era, Jacobus Papa, or even the Pope of that time, Clement VII).

Whereas Brumel’s music evoked gentle awakenings and flowerings, Clemens’ Ego flos campi brought to my mind the sensation of timeless music heard through the window of a distant world. The floating lines suggested a kind of constantly-evolving motion giving rise to a freedom of being, music not sculptured in stone or marble but spontaneously renewing. Though I had difficulty following the text (the singers’ consonants appearing to be overlaid by the interlocking lines) the performance generated an unearthly beauty, with finely-wrought tones and wondrous colours.

Veneration of the Blessed Virgin has become a sore point among Christians ever since the Reformation, with the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox churches pressing forward in their encouragement of devotion towards  Mary as the Mother of God – whatever one’s own beliefs one can’t deny the incredible flowering of artistic expression inspired by this homage over the centuries. This interaction continues to inspire art-works created in honour of Mary, an example being the Three Marian Motets of British-born Healey Willan (1880-1968), who spend most of his creative life in Canada, as “precentor” at the Church of St.Mary Magdalene, in Toronto.

Two of the motets set texts from the 8th Century, the first of which, I beheld her beautiful as a dove, matched in poetic extravagance anything from the Song of Solomon – “even as the springtime was she girded with rosebuds and lilies of the valley”, etc. – in fact the third motet, Rise up my love, was a setting of part of the latter text. The ensemble really “made” something of the first piece, finely-sculpting the opening of “I beheld her” and then building and burgeoning the vocal excitement at “Who is it that cometh up from the desert…..? – then returning to the poise of the opening. The second motet Fair in face featured similarly dramatized parts of the text, the voices emphasising the angelic “rejoicings” and contrasting these with the sweetness of the invocation, “Pray thou for us all”; while the third motet Rise up, my love seemed like a summation of the previous two, with a similarly heart-easing delivery of the last line.

We got quite a change for the next two pieces on the programme, both 5-part madrigals, resulting in most of the Consort leaving the platform. Each of the settings were anxiety-ridden pieces, containing lines such as “Amor a doppio mi distrugge e coce” (Love destroys and burns me in a double coup), and “Mon Coeur se recommande a vous tout plein d’ennui et de martyre” (My heart commends itself to you, filled with much pain and anguish), the sentiments reflected in a certain acerbicity of tone, designed, perhaps, to provoke and irritate rather than to soothe and ingratiate.

Cipriano de Rore’s Se ben il duol che per voi donna sento (If well the grief, lady, I feel for you) seemed a particularly bitter, pain-wracked outpouring, though its companion-piece, Orlande de Lassus’s Mon coeur recommande a vous (My heart commends itself to you) expressed a similarly intense, if more enigmatic bitterness, again mirrored by a degree of not inappropriate astringency in the sound-picture. The smaller group, too, exacerbated the immediacy and directness of the tones’ force and quality.

Just before the interval the musical ground shifted even further with Grayston Ives’ arrangement of Lennon and McCartney’s Michelle, an award-winning Beatles’ song. Contrived for the Kings Singers, this arrangement turned a ballade-like song into a full-blown madrigal, which the voices, solo and ensembled, made the most of, even if our particular household was afterwards “divided” regarding the end result! To its credit, and to the music’s great advantage, I thought, the Consort had a lighter touch with the material than a number of groups whose versions I subsequently tried on “You Tube”.

The concert’s second half opened with a kind of farewell-echo of “Marian-veneration”, Francisco Guerrero’s Ave virgo sanctissima, one of many such motets he composed in honour of the Blessed Virgin. Something about the music’s symmetrical structure, with beautiful internal balances between the imitative parts gave this music a quality not dissimilar to that of Clemens’ Ego flos campi, earlier in the programme, something ethereal and other-worldly, by no means lacking in spontaneity, as witness the impulsive intensifying of tones at “Maris stella clarissima” (Bright star of the sea), but resounding with a kind of inevitability of purpose – at the very least, utterances for the ages.

With Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s double-choir setting of the heart-rending 13th Century poem Stabat Mater, a work delineating the sufferings of Mary as a witness to her Son’s crucifixion, things turned towards a definite darkening of mood, which was maintained to the concert’s end. Palestrina’s music, beautifully imitating the text, covers a great deal of spiritual and emotional territory, at the beginning evoking a kind of “beauty of suffering” of the mother, before confronting the listener with plangent tones of personalised sympathy, at “Quis est homo qui non fleret….?” (Who is the person who would not weep….?), and intensifying the emotion with exchanges between the two choirs throughout.

The Consort voices relished these intensifications, such as at “Vidit lesum in tormentis, et flagellis subditum”, almost rendering a translation unnecessary in places through conveying a sense of fraught emotion to extremes of intensity. The change of metre at “Eja Mater, fons amoris” (O Mother, fountain of love) gathered up and drove the intensities onwards and into empathetic realms, reaching a kind of plateau at “Donec ego vixero” (For as long as I live), the sweep and emphasis of the word-pointing here drawing us into the emotion of it all.

The women’s voices created melismas of beauty with their interlocking phrases at “Juxta crucem tecum stare” (to stand beside the cross with you), through repeated pleadings to share the Mother’s sufferings, up to a kind of “cry for humanity” at “Fac ut portem Christi mortem” (Grant that I may bear the death of Christ), the voices bringing their full weight to the utterance. Director Michael Stewart steered his forces unerringly through these many and varied beseechments involving injury, inebriation and combustion, to the rich declaration of Christian faith at “Quando corpus morietur” (When my body dies), culminating with the glory of achieving Paradise.

Such was the quality of the singing throughout the concert I was surprised to register a brief sequence near the beginning of sixteenth-century French composer Jean Mouton’s lament at the death of Queen Anne of Brittany, Quis dabit oculis nostris (Who will give to our eyes), where I imagined, at “Et plorabimus die ac nocte coram Donimo” (And are we to weep, day and night before the Lord?) the vocal timbres were darkened and flattened to the point of being marginally off pitch. Against this were moments of heart-stopping composure at certain cadences, depicting an almost ritualistic “wasting away in sorrow” – (veste moerore consumeris?…). I enjoyed, too the performers’ dynamic control, making something distinctive out of the contrast between “Heu, nobis Domine” (Woe to us, Lord), and “deficit Anna” (for Anne), from loud to soft, the whole finding amid expressions of grief a loveliness of resolution at the end with a gorgeously-floated “Anna, requiescat in pace” (Rest in peace…).

The last occasion I’d heard the names of Beaumont and Fletcher was when I was recently listening to a recording of a revue “At The Drop Of A Hat” devised and presented by that peerless duo Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, in a monologue delivered by Flanders describing the parlous state of the English theatre in pre-Elizabethan times, and anachronistically attributing the troubles partly to the fact that “Beaumont had quarrelled with Fletcher”! And suddenly, here were those two names mentioned as co-authors of the text of a popular seventeenth-century English part-song, the words originally written for a play “The Maid’s Tragedy”, and appropriated by Robert Lucas de Pearsall for an eight-part madrigal “Lay a garland”.

Robert Lucas de Pearsall (1795-1856) was an English composer, best-known for his vocal works, which were mostly part-songs and madrigals, greatly influenced in form and style by the English madrigal school, but also as the “supposed” composer of the infamous “cat duet” (Duetto buffo di due gatti) normally attributed to Gioachino Rossini. Pearsall’s eight-part song “Lay a garland” inhabits a vastly different world to that of the duetting felines – a gorgeous outpouring of long-breathed beauty, here exquisitely realised, the Voices doing full justice to those “gorgeous suspensions and arching phrases”, as Michael Stewart himself described them for us in his programme note.

A presentation styled “Love, Death and the Maiden” couldn’t REALLY have ended on such a serenely harmonious note, which is where Ralph Vaughan Williams’ setting of an old English folksong, “The Lover’s Ghost” was brought in to do the job of unequivocally delivering the evening’s coup de grace. No more telling demonstration of the powerful influence of folk-song on English composition could have been presented us, analogous with that of folk-idioms on the work of Czech, Hungarian or Russian composers.

I thought the performers here both fully acknowledged and transcended the music’s folkish origins, delivering the narrative with absolute candour and forthright character, the first verse exuding a pale, ghostly air, with the lines having nothing corporeal about them, but keeping within the dream-like realms,  and then the billowing, well-rounded vocal lines of the second verse adding to the fantasy and drawing in the dreamer’s sensibilities. Even richer and more resounding was the third verse, the men’s voices emphasising the apparent sturdiness of the ghostly vessel, and the women’s brighter tones conjuring up the delicacy and radiance of the silken sails and golden mast.

With the fourth verse the mood suddenly and subtly constricted and hardened – a single line directly addressed the sleeper – “I might have had a king’s daughter”, before the other voices crowded in, the mood moving from the plain-spoken to the accusative, and then, suddenly, to the desperately menacing – “..’tis all for the sake, my love, of thee!” – the tones were hurled forth, their aspect conjuring up bleary-eyed and threatening images, though in a strange and tragic way, piteous to encounter. All in all, a fine piece of singing and conducting, a performance which, like the others in this splendid programme, left a definite impression ringing in our ears for days afterwards to come!

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