Baroque Voices and Palliser viols present:
Music by Anon, Tompkins, Byrd, Gibbons, Hume and Ross Harris
Baroque Voices (directed by Pepe Becker)
Pepe Becker, Rowena Simpson (sopranos), Milla Dickens, Alex Granville (altos) Richard Taylor, Phillip Collins (tenors), Isaac Stone, David Morriss (basses)
Palliser Viols (directed by Robert Oliver)
Lisa Beech, Sophia Acheson (treble viols), Jane Brown, Andrea Oliver (tenor viols), Imogen Granwal, Robert Oliver (bass viols)
St Mary of the Angels Church, Boulcott St.,Wellington
Wednesday 20th December, 2017
This was a beautifully devised and presented programme, appropriately given the name “Gaudete” as a kind of seasonal evocation, an enjoining spirit of joyfulness, as well as a reflection of the sentiments proclaimed by both words and music throughout the evening, such as with an eponymously-named work written especially for these musicians by New Zealand composer Ross Harris.
The term “verse anthem” is the English equivalent of the German “cantata” and the French “grande motet”, the form being originally for voices and viols or organ. In an entertaining and illuminatory note accompanying the concert’s programme, Palliser Viols director Robert Oliver elaborated on the development and popularity of the form, and its use by the greatest composers in England of the day, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons and Thomas Tomkins.
We also learned about Oliver’s regard for the solo viol music of Tobias Hume, which the former had played and loved ever since he bought his first bass viol 50 years ago. Here, Hume’s work, though actually written for two instruments, demonstrated to us both a composer’s and a virtuoso performer’s skills. Hume’s advocacy of the viol even occasioned a brief war of words with fellow-composer John Dowland (who favoured the lute) over the respective merits of their chosen instruments, Dowland going so far as to having his views published!
Merely the act of entering and sitting within the breathtakingly beautiful interior of St Mary of the Angels at a time of day when the stained glass windows were still activated by the light served to give rise to feelings of well-being both spiritual and secular. We were thus disposed mightily towards the prospect of hearing “sweete musick” by the time the instrumentalists and singers appeared.
They came bringing tidings of great joy from various sources, the first a setting by William Byrd of verses by one Francis Kindlemarsh, “From Virgins wombe this day did spring”. Beautiful though this opening setting was I though the vocal line too low for Pepe Becker’s normally radiant voice, and thought that an alto’s tones would have better suited the melody’s range in each of the verses – the setting “came alive” in the sections enjoining us to “Rejoice, rejoice”, the ensemble’s voices inviting the words to exult and dance, which the viols also did of their own accord in an introduction to the second verse.
The accompanying Pavan and Galliard for six instruments gave the Consort a turn to demonstrate its skills, the sounds in this acoustic taking on a “bloom” which liberated any hitherto confined spirits and allowed them air and space, the gently-insinuating rhythms having both a solemnity and a carefree aspect which held us in thrall. After this, the Galliard enlivened our enchantment with its evocations of dance and gaiety and high spirits.
Following the relative restraint of Byrd’s “From Virgins wombe”, we were somewhat galvanized by the weight of tone from the whole ensemble at the beginning of Thomas Tomkins’ “Rejoice, rejoice and singe”, the voices sounding like a great throng in comparative terms. Each verse featured invigorating exchanges between individual voices, soprano and tenor in “For Happy weare the tidings”, and the line being tossed from singer to singer in “Blessed is the fuite”, the piece finishing after the men and women alternated between “For beholde, from henceforth” and “blessed, blessed virgin Marie”, before concluding on a tremulously sweet chord, to angelic effect.
Just as captivating was, I thought, Tomkins’ Fantasia for six instruments, the Consort of viols beginning with a modern-sounding phrase whose tonality seemed to shift uncannily, before a series of chromatic descents focused the strangeness of the terrain even further. I loved the sensation of simultaneous movement and stasis in the music, the energies gradually unlocked and pulsating, a sequence which led to a gorgeous overlapping figure building up and intensifying the textures towards the end – music of blood-flowing emotion!
Orlando Gibbons’ “Behold I bring you glad tidings” reiterated excited, hopeful voices at the phrase “glad tidings”, the joy occasionally leavened by seriousness at “A Saviour which is Christ the Lord” and purposeful repetition at “Unto us a Son is giv’n”. Then all was uplifted at “Glory be to God on High” with a great ascent, given rich weight at its base by the men’s tones – everything nicely controlled. Lovely playing by the Consort, both resonant and clearly-focused at one and the same time in this acoustic, brought us the Fantasia which followed, the music cleverly “fantastic” with lines both ascending and descending at once in places, and followed by beautifully “charged” withdrawals of tone into modal-like realms of the kind loved by Vaughan Williams.
In the wake of these iconic-like pieces came Ross Harris’s “Gaudete”, the fruit of the composer’s desire to write something for this actual concert, after having written separate piece for each ensemble previously. A tumult of voices and instruments at the beginning conveyed the excitement of the news of the Saviour’s birth, the cries of “Gaudete, Christus est natus” reiterating at intervals during the piece, providing some contrast with the relatively sombre “road journey” of the verses, at “Tempus adest gratia” (The time of grace has come), and later, “Ezekielis porta Claus petransitur” (The closed gate of Ezekiel has been passed through). I was given the whole time the sense of a journey from darkness to light, from ignorance to enlightenment, from fear to hope, the music’s trajectories conveying a kind of direction and purpose punctuated by revelations expressed with utter joy. I thought the work heartwarming and the performance exhilarating!
After the interval came one of those treasurable “Pepe Becker” moments, with music which admirably suited her voice – this was the anonymously-written 17th Century Christmas song “Sweet was the song”, an angelic soprano voice accompanied by a single viol, the sounds again given a certain bloom by the acoustic to memorable effect. Just as remarkable was the enchantment of four viols accompanying the song’s second verse, voice and instruments conveying an overall sense, in the sound’s pure quality, of something eternal.
Following these celestial outpourings the instrumental consort music of Tobias Hume brought us back to terra firma, but delightfully so – here, instead, were earthy, characterful tones, in places attractively nasal, while elsewhere the timbres were sweet and ingratiating. These were two duets whose titles – “Sweet Music” and “Musick and Mirth” – suggested contrasting pieces were in store, the first vocal in character, and the second dance-like. The performances’ rhythmic control and subtle variation of pulse was a joy, the trajectories breathing easefully at all times, while the accenting meant that one never knew what next to expect – razor-sharp tones were followed by full, rich vocal lines, the music moving easily and excitingly through eventful contrasts. The “Musick and Mirth” section had a gigue-like character at the beginning, one which seemed to “morph’ into something rather more four-square and even more ruminative, before suddenly accelerating! – the players splendidly put across the music’s exploratory quirkiness to wonderful effect.
The anonymous, carol-like “Born is the Babe”, was the perfect foil for the instrumental pieces which surrounded it, bright, melodic and meditative, with its final line “who cured our care by suff’ring on the cross”. Then, as with Tobias Hume’s piece, William Byrd’s Fantasia for six instruments was filled with imaginative touches, beginning wistfully as if day-dreaming, before gathering more and more tonal weight with the lines overlapping, with lots of “echo-phrases” for our delectation. Rhythms began to throw out accents, enlivening the textures, and leading us towards a joyful dance variation, before rushing to an exhilarating conclusion.
For us in the audience it all felt and sounded fun to perform, as did the same composer’s “This day Christ was born” with its “lively rhythms”, and its magnificent peroration, gloriously put across by the musicians, the voices reaching upwards with “Glory to God on High” and the concluding Alleluiahs. As a kind of “Christmas bonus” the group treated us to a repeat performance of Ross Harris’s “Gaudete”, even more resplendently given this time round – the Monteverdi-like energies of the opening declamations, the almost Sibelius-like rhythmic trajectories of the repeated instrumental figures accompanying “Tempus adest gratia”, denoting the irresistible forces of change and enlightenment, as “the closed gate of Ezekiel” was left behind, and the soaring vocal lines riding the waves of expectation, leading to a final, confident and joyful “Gaudete”.
It all left we in the audience feeling joyful and expectant, and with a sense of wonderment and thankfulness at music’s power of transformation, as well as gratitude to those who performed it all so splendiferously! – omnes laudate!