Tudor Consort advances four centuries to the contemporary, war-stricken world with great success

The Tudor Consort directed by Michael Stewart with Andrew Joyce, cello

Exaudi – Songs for cello and choir
John Tavener: Exhortation and Kohima; Svyati 
Jocelyn Morlock: Exaudi
Bach: Suite No 4 in E flat for solo cello
Richard Rodney Bennett: A Farewell to Arms

Saint Mary of the Angels

(Apologies for lateness of filing; it has induced endless journeys into peripheral subjects: all fascinating but irrelevant)

Saturday 28 July, 7:30 pm

Director of The Tudor Consort, Michael Stewart, spoke to introduce this generally unfamiliar (apart from the Bach) programme. As well as drawing attention to aspects of the music, he remarked on what might be felt as a departure from the choir’s usual territory, concentrating on early and Renaissance music (though there have generally been interesting deviations from that prescription), to tackle an entirely 20th, even 21st, century programme. He commented on the choir’s interest in collaborations with sympathetic musicians whose activities lie largely in other territory; on this occasion, NZSO principal cellist Andrew Joyce.

Some in the audience might have come across the pieces by Tavener; I had not, as far as I remember. That was where they started: Exhortation and Kohima, one relating to WWI, the other to WWII. It was commissioned for the festival of Remembrance in the Albert Hall in 2003. The two parts were sung separately – Exhortation at the beginning and Kohima at the end of the concert.

Exhortation is a setting of the famous lines from Laurence Binyon’s For the Fallen. It began with strong, clear sopranos whose voices echoed around the nave, and then several voices – both male and female – emerged from behind the west door, delivering a long, consoling response, melodic in a secular though not irreligious spirit.

The second Tavener piece was Svyati, a Russian Orthodox prayer (Tavener, for many years, before eventually declaring his agnosticism, was deeply interested in Orthodox rituals and music). It involved cellist Andrew Joyce. Tavener had explained that the cello represented the Priest or the Icon of Christ and suggested it might be played at a distance, perhaps from the opposite end of the building.  But here Joyce sat at the intersection of the centre and cross aisles, slightly behind and to my right. That created an unexpected immediacy so that when men’s voices emerged, singing in Church Slavonic (which I think is rather the equivalent in the Orthodox ritual, to Latin in the Roman), their involvement was almost imperceptible, intoning alone till eventually joined by the rest of the choir. The note didn’t make entirely clear to what extent the setting might have been Tavener’s original of some kind of adaptation of the original Slavonic hymn. It moved through several phases with the cello entering and then falling silent between choral episodes, and it held the attention through long passages of near silence from the singers; one didn’t feel the need for more. It’s impact was singularly moving.

The title work of the concert, Exaudi, was that of a recent work by Canadian composer Jocelyn Morlock, According to the pre-performance publicity, it is her own highly personal response to Tavener’s work though the programme itself didn’t enlarge on that. Exaudi was a commission from the Vancouver Musica Intima vocal ensemble and included a cello part played by Stephen Isserlis. Here the cellist, Andrew Joyce, sat at the right front of the choir, and contributed a vividly contrasting element to the chanting by bass voices, and later by especially high women’s voices that seemed to weave a quite complex harmonic fabric. It ended with repeating phrases moving higher and higher, quieter and quieter.

It was as well to have the interval at that point, as Joyce’s rendering of Bach’s fourth cello suite inhabited such an entirely different music-sphere. Joyce was now on his own in the centre of the performance area. He handled the repetitious broken chords, up and down triplet quavers, that dominate the Prelude with a mixture of seriousness and lightness, coloured with fluttery gestures, that held the listener’s curiosity throughout. Comparable rhythmic variety and distinct pauses had the effect of connecting the long, flowing phrases in the Allemande which, to state the obvious, becomes ever more complex and rewarding with every hearing (or playing). Joyce’s Courante was characterised by little rushes on the rising phrases, almost becoming blurred but never losing clarity; on the other hand, the courante can be played with such studied detail that its flowing, ‘running’ character risks being lost; not here.

Before starting the Sarabande, Joyce paused pointedly, shifted on his chair as if to draw attention to the importance of what was to follow; the sarabandes in each suite are occasions for spiritual stock-take, and his playing indeed took on a distinctly more profound spirit.

The challenge for the cellist in the Bourrées is somehow to give some individuality to every one of the endless repeats of the short, unvarying motifs; Bourrée No 2 usually seems a long time coming, and there was a risk here. Each movement has a different role to play in the suite and the Gigue’s is to send the audience away, forgetting the tragedies and horrors that are the normal accompaniment for our lives, and it worked pretty well.

The choir then returned to sing A Farewell to Arms (no relation to Hemingway) by Richard Rodney Bennett (it took me ages to get him sorted from Robert Russell Bennett, the American, famous for orchestrating Broadway musicals as well as original composition). It was written on commission for a Minneapolis choir in 2002, it consists of two distinct poems written half a century apart.

The first is a 17th century poem by the obscure Ralph Knevet (roughly contemporary with the many post-Tudor poets like Herrick, Herbert, Carew, Marvell, Waller, Suckling … and Milton…. ). His poem began: ‘The helmet now an hive for bees becomes…’. It’s followed with a hardly audible break by a poem by the slightly less obscure Shakespeare contemporary, George Peele, entitled Polyhymnia which begins: ‘His golden locks time hath to silver turned…’; the programme notes described its somewhat convoluted provenance.

Bennett was something of a poly-stylist, a classical composer fundamentally; one with solid serialist, avant-garde credentials; but also jazz (I heard him in such a recital maybe 15 years ago in the National Library’s then theatrette) and popular styles; but this was thoroughly approachable, a mainstream choral composition though unmistakably of our era.

Andrew Joyce’s elegiac cello plays an extended introduction before the choir enters, led by women’s voices with men sounding somewhat secondary. Choir and cello were nicely matched, and the music, while calmly meditative, was agreeably melodious with attractive, wide intervals. The presence of the cello struck me, increasingly, as the element that grounded it and offered persuasive support to the choir which, alone, might have struggled to hold attention through its near quarter hour duration.

Then came the second part of Tavener’s Exhortation and Kohima, specifically called the Kohima Epitaph. The Battle of Kohima marked a major battle in north-east India, from April to June 1944, which drove the Japanese from critical positions and turned the tide of the war with Japan in that theatre. The words ‘When you go home, tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow, we gave our today’ are attributed to John Maxwell Edmonds.

To return to the spirit of the concert’s first piece was a congenial device, and even, now, without the cello which had become such a rewarding element in most of the other pieces, it focused the audience beautifully on the quality of the choir’s performance and the subdued beauty of Tavener’s setting.

Finally. The Tudor Consort’s programmes are admirable: it’s A4 size, printed in large type so that even if the light is dim (which it wasn’t and could have been turned down a little to help atmosphere) it was very readable.