Aurora IV: singing Renaissance to 20th century music
Toby Gee (alto counter-tenor), Richard Taylor (tenor), Julian Chu-Tan (tenor, Simon Christie (bass)
Music by Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson, Byrd, Jean Mouton, Richard Lloyd, Lasso, Ludovico da Viadano, Poulenc, Tallis, Andrew Smith
St Andrew’s on The Terrace
Wednesday 22 November 2017, 12:15 pm
I’m fairly sure that this was my first hearing of Aurora IV, a male vocal quartet whose repertoire stretches from the 16th to the 21st century, though I have long been familiar with Simon Christie’s voice and recall hearing Richard Taylor in other groups, particularly The Tudor Consort.
One of the characteristics of the recital was the choice of words and music from widely separate eras. Thus the opening piece was a two-year-old setting of a hymn by 13th century Icelandic poet Kolbeinn Tumason. The programme took the trouble of spelling the Icelandic names using authentic letters, using the voiced ‘þ’ and unvoiced ‘ð’ which in English, of course, are left undistinguished by ‘th’.*
The modern setting of Kolbeinn Tumason’s Heyr himna smiður by Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson made strong references to early Renaissance music, which these musically literate singers captured very convincingly; it provided, for me, a chance to be highly impressed by the effective blending and dynamic uniformity of their voices, without in the least avoiding illuminating particular voices where called for.
The first, ‘Kyrie eleison’, of three parts of Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices followed. Here bass Simon Christie as well as male alto Toby Gee, emerged prominently, though the two tenors were obviously important in filling the rich polyphony. Neither ‘Gloria’ nor ‘Credo’ were performed here, and the ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Benedictus’ followed later: the former an interesting contrapuntal piece in which, again, the quality of each voice was conspicuous.
Tenor Richard Taylor seemed to take the lead at the start of the calmer, devotional ‘Benedictus’. The recital ended with the quartet singing the ‘Agnus Dei’, full of pain; till then I had not been particularly aware of second tenor, Julian Chu-Tan, as I was on the right while he faced left. But here I became more aware of him, slightly less robust that Taylor, but perhaps even more finely attuned to the character of the quartet as a whole which presented such a finely nuanced and spiritually persuasive presentation that it’s quite unreasonable to attempt to characterise individual voices.
To resume the order of the programme: Jean Mouton, one of the leading French composers of the 15th-16th centuries, his ‘Quis dabit oculis nostris’; in spite of my hesitation above, here were prominent and moving offerings by Taylor and Gee, in this beautiful lament on the death of his patron Anna of Brittany in 1514. It captured a uniquely idiomatic French style with integrity.
Then a modern English setting of a lyric by 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas, ‘Adoro te devote’. The composer is Richard Lloyd, composed, as with the Icelandic piece, in 2013, and similarly embracing an authentic Renaissance sound, though with a melodic and harmonic character that rather gives away it more recent origin.
The variety of spellings of Lassus’s name (Orlande de Lassus, Roland de Lassus, Orlando di Lasso, Orlandus Lassus and many others) arises partly from his peripatetic earlier life, born in the Netherlands – in Hainaut, now in Belgium – travelled and worked in France and Italy, but eventually settled in Munich; contemporary of Palestina, Tallis, Byrd….
His ‘Matona, mia caro’ lends itself to a variety of approaches, sometimes by women, sometimes by mixed voices, and by large choirs; these singers adopted a lively, crisp rendition that stressed its exuberance and light-heartedness, even music to dance to. I’ve heard it sung in very differently ways, sometimes like a religious motet; Aurora IV carried the folk, onomatopoeic character ‘don don don…’ excellently.
Ludovico da Viadano who composed ‘Exultate iusti in Domino’, the words from Psalm 33, might be a relatively obscure composer, but his motet seems to be widely popular judging by the number of performances to be found on YouTube. It’s spirited, almost dancing in its energy, starting and ending in triple time, while the main central part is in solid common time. Here was another delightful late Renaissance song that should be popular with young choirs.
Poulenc seemed an abnormal phenomenon in the midst of Renaissance or pseudo-Renaissance song. Two of his ‘Four Prayers’ (Quatre petites prières de Saint François d’Assise) served to sharpen musical receptivity, though presenting a spirit that seemed ambivalent, outside the mainstream. Toby Gee introduced them. They were composed at Poulenc’s Loire Valley refuge, Noizay, in 1948. ‘Tout puisant’ (‘All Powerful’), the second of them, in somewhat ardent, laudatory spirit, was in a distinctively 20th century idiom, faintly coloured by an earlier style, vaguely Renaissance not easily definable . The third Prayer is Seigneur, je vous en prie (‘Lord, I implore you’); it presented itself with more sobriety, in a minor key, with a striking passage from Richard Taylor towards the end.
One had been waiting for Tallis in this company. ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments’ fulfilled the Tallis need, with its restraint, its sombre, exquisite tone, seeming to suggest that Tallis had found a balance between the religious conflicts of the age (it was published in 1560, just after Elizabeth had come to the throne, meaning an abrupt shift from the ruthless Catholicism of Mary). A beautiful performance of a beautiful motet.
Another recent Biblical setting by Norwegian composer Andrew Smith (born in Liverpool, moved to Norway in his teens) picked up on a pattern common in the recital. I didn’t record remarks about the version sung here, which was based on an anonymous 13th century English motet, of words from Isaiah. Presumably, the striking, spare harmonies, infusing the recent arrangement, reflected the original setting (or was it wholly recomposed, in a sympathetic style?).
And it ended with the Byrd’s Agnus Dei which I touched on above, concluding an intelligent, seriously well-studied and polished recital of four-part polyphony.
* I was familiar with these Icelandic letters since they were used for the same sounds in Anglo-Saxon, which was a compulsory element in university English language and literature studies in my day. A paper in Icelandic, including readings in the sagas, some originating in the 9th century, but recorded from the 13th century, was an optional paper at master’s level. Further trivia: the Sagas, e.g the Saga of the Volsungs, and the Poetic Edda, were important sources for Wagner in the Ring cycle.