The Tudor Consort directed by Michael Stewart
Renaissance Love Songs
Composers: Giovanni Gastoldi, Orlando de Lassus, Clément Janequin, Thomas Weekles, John Wilbye, Luca Marenzio, John Dowland, Carlo Gesualdo, Juan del Encina, Henry Purcell, Pierre Certon, Orlando Gibbons, Josquin des Prez, Pierre Passereau
Khandallah Town Hall
Saturday 16 February, 7 pm
The first concert of the Tudor Consort’s year was in a different place and sang music that was different from their normal pattern. Yes, it was from the Renaissance – almost entirely composed in the 16th century, the Tudor age, and the first couple of decades of the 17th. (Purcell was the only one seriously out of place).
And the music was not written for choirs or large ensembles; nor was there any religious music. It was, as advertised, entirely love songs and most of it could be classed as madrigals. Some were pure and chaste, others erotic though never exactly obscene. They had abandoned traditional choral uniform, looking as if they’d just got back from the beach or the garden or reading in the shade or a walk in the park. Michael Stewart’s introduction and remarks on most of the pieces were casual and entertaining; his control of the singers, giving life to the music, as usual, exemplary.
The concert opened with a signature song insisting on the indominatability of love: Amor vittorioso, upbeat and joyous, sung by the whole choir, eleven excluding conductor Stewart who did participate as singer a couple of times later. It signalled, pretty accurately, the happy time we had committed ourselves to, a generally innocent view of love.
Lassus’s madrigal was to French words: Bonjour mon Coeur. Slow paced, rather thoughtful, it was sung by just four singers, and though men were present, the slight lack of bass support, no doubt the way it was written, did not seem to fit its being sung by man to woman.
The third song, Amour, amour, also French, by a composer unknown to me: Clément Janequin, half a century earlier than the first two composers. Only three singers performed this time, in short, pithy song lamenting the conflicting nature of love.
Then a couple of English madrigals, a full century later than Janequin, and it showed: Thus sings my dearest love by Thomas Weelkes and Lady, when I behold the roses sprouting by John Wilbye. The first bright and positive from three women , the second six singers equally distributed. The latter, longer, displayed more elaborate polyphony, but not an unclouded view of love.
The next song, by Luca Marenzio, Tirsi morir volea, tested the moral fortitude of the audience as certain words, even in Italian, specifically morir, are not difficult to decipher; its meaning might have been rather explicit. The distinct lines of harmony rather exposed the five singers; yet in spite of some ensemble difficulties, the challenge was dealt as, one hopes, was its particular amorous meaning.
Dowland’s well known Come again, seemed to suggest a similar situation, with four men singing, covering the vocal range in a very satisfactory way, though a different problem might have existed with four men, without women.
The Schoenberg of the Renaissance and a Spanish revelation
Without dealing with every song, highlights from then included the typically singular motet by Gesualdo, whose exposure with the general exploration of Renaissance music has led to his fame as perpetrator of one of the most famous crimes passionnels. In the discreet words of Wikipedia: “The best known fact of his life is his brutal and violent killing of his first wife and her aristocratic lover upon finding them in flagrante delicto”. Being of the nobility himself he was able to escape punishment. (In the next century, composer Alessandro Stradella became the victim in such an affair). As a result of his remarkably radical and prescient harmonic ventures his music has gained special notoriety in recent years. This madrigal, Mille volte il di, sung by the whole choir, was an excellent, ear-bending example.
The following bracket of madrigals included two by Spanish composer Juan del Encina, the first for four voices, Mi libertad, to an intriguingly subtle poem (the words may have been his own as he was a poet and dramatist too). He lived about a century before most of the other composers in the programme (1468-1530) which also puts him a century ahead of Shakespeare; and the slow, moving quality of the music spoke to me with singular power.
The other madrigal by Del Encina, Señora de hermosura, called for all eleven singers plus conductor Stewart. Soon after it began the choir broke up and we heard in turn, and finally in enchanting ensemble, three groups singing from the front, from the left side and from the small gallery at the back of the hall (no doubt where the projection box was when it was a picture theatre). It made for one of the most delightful performances of the evening.
In between the two Encina pieces were Purcell’s famous If music be the food of love; and another madrigal by Lassus, Mon Coeur se recommande à vous which engaged five voices in a nicely balanced performance.
The Purcell part song is known, partially for its not-quite-Shakespeare words. The first seven words, yes, from Twelfth Night, but then ‘sing on’ instead of ‘play on’ and the rest elaborated and extended for Purcell by one Colonel Henry Heveningham. By the end of the 17th century Shakespeare’s stocks were at a low level, being ignorant of the all-important classical unities; and ‘improvements’ on defective Tudor drama were the fashion. However, it was charmingly sung by the entire group.
Then another name unknown (to me), Pierre Certon and his Que n’est elle auprès de moy was followed by another English madrigal, Ah, dear heart by Orlando Gibbons. And finally two French madrigals: Josquin des Prez’s famous Mille regretz, , and Pierre Passereau – Il est bel et bon, another song delighting in double entendre which brought this highly varied and diverting concert that was especially enriched with a few rather unfamiliar composers, to end in a sparkling and entertaining manner.