A Consort Christmas: Tudor Consort assembles brilliant and diverting package of words and music

The Tudor Consort directed by Michael Stewart

A Consort Christmas; carols and secular and liturgical pieces by Jean Mouton, Matteo Flecha ‘El Vielo’, Tallis, Francisco Guerrero, Byrd, Sweelinck, Praetorius, Peter Cornelius, Rachmaninov, Healey Willan, Howells, Poulenc, Richard Madden, and Gregorian chant  
and readings on Christmas themes from Robert Easting and Bryan Crump

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

Saturday 16 December, 7:30 pm

Given The Tudor Consort’s splendidly rehearsed and executed array of carols, chants, liturgical and secular songs connected with Christmas, one had to wonder whether the unusual quantity of Christmas-related music over the past few weeks had brought about some aural fatigue resulting in a smaller audience than I would have expected.

And so, to remind you of all the Christmas-like concerts over the past three weeks, look at the end of this review.

First came a Gregorian chant, Puer natus est nobis, which the programme described as the Introit for the third mass of Christmas Day, which sounded from the back (west end) of the church as choir members walked slowly up the centre aisle with music director Michael Stewart in their midst. Its spirit was one of optimism and joy.

A variant on that subject followed: Hodie Christus natus est by Jan Sweelinck, recorded in the programme as the Antiphon for Vespers of Christmas Day. Here emerged a marked characteristic of the choir’s performance – glorious, high sopranos, including voices that would be soloists in the Tallis Missa puer natus est nobis and elsewhere.

Readings: Robert Easting
After the Sweelinck, erstwhile choir member Robert Easting, Professor Emeritus (English language and literature) at Victoria University, delivered a splendidly orated recital of the 16th century ‘carol’ The Carol of Jolly Wat, replete with convincing contemporary pronunciation and profane histrionics.

(Introducing his verses, Easting mentioned the death this week of another distinguished Wellington academic at Oxford, Douglas Gray. It brought back memories: Gray was Dux at Wellington College in my third form year. By the time I was studying English at Victoria, he was junior lecturer in Professor Ian Gordon’s English Department, and I recall his lectures and seminars in stage II in Middle English and/or Anglo-Saxon. A further pedantic offering: one of our text books was Kenneth Sisam’s classic Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose, still somewhere on my shelves. Sisam too was a distinguished New Zealand scholar at Oxford).

You’ll find the carol in Helen Gardner’s New Oxford Book of English Verse. The idiom of this late Middle English, popular verse seemed to lie between the literary language of Chaucer and Langland, and the early Tudor poets who are still broadly comprehensible to our ears.

Readings: Bryan Crump
There were three later readings, by Bryan Crump who is familiar as an RNZ news reader. The first relating to a Christmas at Scott Base from a journal of Harry Jones, with amusing observations; the second, Marsden’s account of the first Christmas celebration in New Zealand, in 1814: a bit revelatory, especially in light of later exposure of Marsden’s violent proclivities; and finally a delightfully droll letter to Mark Twain’s (Samuel Clemens) daughter from Father Christmas.

The ‘serious’ music was interspersed by traditional carols in which the audience was required to join: God rest ye merry, gentlemen (in the programme, victim of common mis-punctuation – the comma before ‘merry’); Silent Night; Good King Wenceslas; Silent Night.

Tallis: Missa puer natus est nobis
The ‘composed’ music was by all those named in the heading. Tallis ‘Christmas Mass’, Missa puer natus est nobis, was divided into three parts and sung at three points in the programme; so it set the concert in what might be considered the heartland of Renaissance choral music. It is regarded as untypical of the Tallis known in most of his other music, perhaps because it was composed as the Catholic monarch, Mary, came to the throne in 1553, after the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, offering a much more friendly climate for Catholic musicians, as Tallis was. The absence from the score of soprano voices is attributed to Mary’s marriage to Philip II of Spain (the same Philip who features in Schiller’s and Verdi’s Don Carlos) whose Chapel Royal which was resident in England with the king seems not to have used high treble voices.

Bits of the mass had been published in the monumental ten-volume Tudor Church Music series in 1928 but no satisfactory performing version was known till 1961, when additional sections were discovered. Though the Mass remains incomplete (most of the Credo is still lost and some of the other movements have missing voices), it has now had several impressive recorded performances; it is now regarded as one of the great masterpieces of the Tudor era. A scholarly edition appeared in 1977 (these details from an article in the Musical Times, on the Internet).

Its characteristics
It has no Kyrie, but begins with the Gloria. As noted in Michael Stewart’s comment below, it follows the shape of Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi trinitas which was sung by the Tudor Consort in February last year; I reviewed it but had forgotten that detail. I’d noted there that the Kyrie was not regarded as part of the Ordinary of the Mass before the Reformation; though I’m not sure that’s altogether correct. Further, Tallis scored his mass for seven voices; seven soloists led it while the rest of the choir (as far as I could tell, sitting some way back) contributed wonderful richness to the Gloria, in which men’s voices dominated initially, while the high voices soon entered creating a luminous quality above the wonderful polyphony of the middle vocal lines.

I had wondered about references in other sources to the scoring, for seven voices, but no sopranos. When I contacted Michael Stewart to clarify it, he told me he’d mentioned it in his pre-concert talk, which I had missed; he explained: “The sopranos were singing ‘mean’ parts, which had a lower range than the ‘treble’ parts that one would expect from earlier music such as the masses of John Taverner… Compare the tessitura of the Tallis compared with the very high lines the sopranos had to negotiate in last year’s performance of Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi trinitas for instance. The mass would undoubtedly have been performed lower and with falsettists singing the women’s parts, but that necessitates men who can sing very low and very high, and would preclude the sopranos involvement!”

The second part of Tallis’s ‘Christmas Mass’ opened the second part of the programme: Sanctus and Benedictus. The solo sopranos (Chelsea Whitfield and Phoebe Sparrow) were also conspicuous in here. (The other soloists were Megan Hurnard – alto, Philip Roderick and Garth Norman – tenors, David Houston and Simon Christie – basses). The elaborate counterpoint, taking the text on interesting journeys in the Sanctus; the Benedictus lowered the dynamic level distinctly, giving the sopranos a hushed, ecstatic quality. The Agnus Dei was sung towards the end of the concert, slow and placatory, rhythmically complex, and harmonically dense.

Other Renaissance and later music
Much of the other music was also from the Renaissance, consolidating our feeling for the variety to be found in the early period (Mouton’s Nasciens Mater and the two more secular Spanish pieces, with peasantish, dancelike suggestions), and later composers (Byrd’s English setting of This day Christ was born and Praetorius’s In dulci jubilo).

Particularly striking were two liturgical settings by composers primarily known for orchestral and instrumental music: Rachmaninov and Poulenc: the best-known section from Rachmaninov’s Vespers (‘All night Vigil’), deeply felt, employing idiomatic-sounding Russian, Bogoroditse devo; and Poulenc’s O magnum mysterium the first of his ‘Four Motets for Christmas’.  It was a sumptuous, yet delicate performance that to me remains a fine model of mid-20th century music that is engaging and accessible and at the same time inventive, and sounding clearly of it age.

Music of the 19th and 20th centuries filled most of the second half: two distinct pieces entitled ‘The Three Kings’ (set to different poems), by Healey Willan (a curious yet interesting setting of a poem by Laurence  Housman – brother of A E H), and Peter Cornelius (better known perhaps as an opera composer – The Barber of Bagdad, still heard occasionally in Germany), with a very taxing solo part from Simon Christie.

Finally, pieces by Herbert Howells and Richard Madden. Howells’ ‘Here is a little door’, a curious, childlike text set to music that always strikes me as the quintessentially English, religious manner. While that was an a cappella piece, a 15th century verse, ‘I sing of a maiden’ by still-living Richard Madden was accompanied by Chelsea Whitfield at the organ, with solos by Phoebe Sparrow and Philip Roderick.

The pair of Spanish songs returned us to the 16th century, with composers Matteo Flecha ‘El Vielo’ and Francisco Guerrero: Guerrero’s A un Nino Llorando, with opportunities for well-contrasted female soloists to be heard (Whitfield, Melanie Newfield, Jane McKinlay, Andrea Cochrane and Amanda Barclay); and the latter a peasant-like, Christmas-related song in Riu riu chiu which offered a chance to hear other than seriously liturgical Spanish music of the period (with three good bass soloists – Christie, Houston and Thomas Drent).


Christmas (mainly) choral concerts of the past three weeks  

Vox Serbica
Supertonic Choir
A Soprani Christmas (Duo of singers Paloma Bruce and Ruth Armishaw)
Wainuiomata Choir
Baroque Voices in Monteverdi (not strictly Christmas)
Wellington Young Voices
Metropolitan Cathedral Choirs and Orchestra
Tudor Consort
Orpheus Choir and
NZSO Messiah
Bach Choir
Festival Singers and The Northern Chorale
Nota Bene:

And to come:

Messiaen’s La Nativité – organ Brian Cash
Counsel in Concert (not strictly Christmas)
Baroque Voices with Palliser Viols