The Tudor Consort in remarkable performances of great poly-choral masterpieces from the 16th and 20th centuries

The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart
‘Music for a Great Space’

Striggio: Ecce beatam lucem
Frank Martin: Mass for Double Choir
Giovanni Gabrieli: Omnes genes plaudit and Jubilate Deo
Ockeghem: Deo Gracias
Tallis: Spem in alium (the ‘40-part motet’)

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

Saturday 16 November, 7:30 pm

On successive Saturdays the Cathedral of St Paul has hosted quite major choral concerts, performing some of the greatest choral works. Much as it’s important to be exposed to compositions of our own time, I feel that there’s a tendency for musical bodies in all genres to be unduly burdened by an imagined obligation to perform contemporary music, most of which is listened to from a sense of obligation rather than an urge to enjoy the emotional qualities of music that’s stood the test of time.

These two recent concerts, by Cantoris and The Tudor Consort, have let us hear masterpieces that have attained that rank over the years through intrinsic qualities.

This concert by The Tudor Consort was inspired by two ideas: another performance of Tallis’s wonderful Spem in alium (this was the choir’s fourth performance) and another choral work that employs many parts: Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir. Tallis 40-part composition was inspired by a motet by Alessandro Striggio (who was thirty years Tallis’s junior), Ecce beatam lucem as a result of Striggio’s visit to London in 1566/67. The Tudor Consort had sung the Striggio motet along with the Tallis, as here, at a concert in the Sacred Heart Cathedral in July 2011.

40-part choirs competing
So we started with Striggio. But first, we were introduced to a discreet instrumental accompaniment, in the shape of three sackbuts (Jon Harker, Peter Maunder and Matt Stein) and a violin (Rebecca Struthers); sackbuts (ancestor of trombone) were spread from side to side, behind the singers while the violin was on the far left, in front. Even though their contribution was discreet, it did make a gesture towards Striggio’s intentions.

According to Wikipedia, in a Bavarian performance of Ecce beatam lucem in 1568, instruments included eight each of flutes, violas, trombones; a harpsichord and bass lute. And it also noted that the four choirs were spatially separated; at this performance, the distinctions between the choirs could have been clearer, but the point of the composition was, after all, to create a kind of opulent, seamless performance that didn’t draw attention to individual parts. In contrast to the differently distributed pattern of singers in the Tallis, here the sound was completely homogeneous and there was no point in trying to locate voices.

My 2011 review in Middle C of The Tudor Consort’s performance of both the Striggio and the Tallis, recalled that the music to be performed had stimulated such interest that the Sacred Heart Cathedral was overflowing and the unusual step was taken to open the organ gallery above. The crowd might have been partly the result of David Morriss on RNZ Concert’s Classical Chart speaking about a CD sitting at No 1 on the Chart: the motet by Alessandro Striggio, performed by I Fagiolini.

Browsing, as one does, on YouTube, I came across this comment from a listener 10 years ago about the Striggio motet:

“… after hearing this work over and over again, I feel surrounded, uplifted, and caressed by it. I believe I like this work even better than the more famous Spem in Alium of Tallis, which of course was based on it. This is a divine, heavenly piece – truly worthy of the words. Absolutely astounding! No wonder it caused a sensation in Tallis’ England.”

What more can I say!

So this was in striking contrast to the distribution of the singers in the Tallis, at the concert’s end, where the choir members encircled the audience.

The Tudor Consort’s first performance of Spem in alium was in 1992, under the founding conductor Simon Ravens; the second, marked the 20th anniversary of the choir’s foundation, in 2006 when Simon Ravens returned to participate in the celebration. (I reviewed both, in the Evening Post and Dominion Post, respectively); and the third performance of Spem in alium was in July 2011, and I also reviewed that, in Middle C.

The cathedral can, as it did for last Saturday’s Cantoris concert, present problems, but music of this kind, composed in long slowly evolving lines and harmonic density seemed perhaps to benefit from the acoustic. And this smaller choir, consisting generally of more polished, professional voices, also benefited from more rehearsal. Anyway, a comparison was hardly possible, for the Striggio was sung with the choir in a conventional formation at the front while the singers in the Tallis were spread around the all sides of the audience which created a very different aural picture.

The spreading of the choir around the cathedral made a dramatic difference to the experience. For me, sitting fairly close to the right side, it was interesting to hear the singers close to me much more clearly than those 40 metres away, on the other side. Listeners in the middle would have heard a more balanced performance. However, it was fascinating to hear the way Tallis had planned the listening experience by being aware of the music passing around the circle clockwise and then anti-clockwise and all the other imaginative devices he used.

Nevertheless, there was enough common ground to make it clear that both were masterpieces, beautifully sung, that touched the human spirit and the emotions very deeply.

Frank Martin’s Mass for double choir  
The choir was rearranged for the Franck Martin Mass: men behind and women in front, across the front of the choir stalls. I was relying on a degree of familiarity through a live performance by the Bach Choir in 2010 at St Mark’s church, by the Basin Reserve: I suspect my first live hearing.

It has been speculated that Martin chose to employ a double choir because an early musical experience had been Bach’s St Matthew Passion which also employs double choral parts. That might explain the vocal arrangement, but its real musical roots lie with Renaissance polyphony and even medieval plainsong: another reason why the contrasting music at this concert was chosen and created such a hugely satisfying experience.

The work is very intricately composed, with attention to word meanings as well as to the spiritual sense of the texts, and there are constant changes of dynamics and rhythms. There was a lightness and delight in the Kyrie eleison that suddenly became excitable with ‘Christe eleison’; and it continued, as the Kyrie always does, to create its own varied textures and emotions from these few words. But this is a setting like no other that one has heard (‘one’ meaning me). The Mass was broken up after the Gloria, interspersed between the motets by Gabrieli and Ockeghem.

The Mass is unique in the unusually human interpretations of the words. There’s a simplicity and directness in the expressive gentleness in the rather prosaic language of the Credo, as the message passed from innocent high voices to matter-of-fact basses. After the slow lament of ‘passus et sepultus est’, the sudden, excitable women’s voices surprise with ‘Et resurrexit tertia die’. Yet another more intimate mood takes over with the ‘Credo in spiritum sanctum’. These features characterised the whole work, till at the Agnus Dei a peaceful light shines through, couched in sounds that were remote from the more common, deep piety that darkens much liturgical music through which the story is told, in rich harmonies involving all eight voices that alternate in what can be considered the melody line: it slows and dims and gently fades away.

There are no signs of atonality or other 20th century fashions; in fact the music comes close to conventional melody, with conventional key signatures throughout. At each hearing the humane beauty of this remarkable work runs more deeply, particularly in a performance of such scrupulous attention to rhythms and dynamics as from this fine choir.

More motets
The balance of the programme, after the three seminal works, took us through a couple of examples of Renaissance polyphony: two motets by Giovanni Gabrieli and a canon by Ockeghem. The Gabrieli family was a family of prominent Venetian musicians the most important of whom were Andrea and his nephew Giovanni, both significant in St Mark’s basilica in Venice. There a tradition of ecclesiastical music developed of investing a dramatic character in two choirs, often featuring instruments, that took advantage of the church’s twin choir lofts facing each other, each containing an organ.

Gabrieli Omnes gentes
While the choir was somewhat reduced in size following the first two movements of the Martin mass, the violin and three sackbuts returned to make important contributions in the performance of Giovanni’s Omnes gestes plaudite. It’s written for 16 voices, in four distinct ‘choirs’, thus ‘polychoral’. The four choirs sing most of the time, though punctuated by solo voices or smaller groups from just one or two of the ‘choirs’. The continuous and prominent feature of the piece was an almost martial, character, with strong dotted rhythms. A second Gabrieli motet was Jubilate Deo, a particularly joyous piece in which sopranos seemed to be prominent though not to the point of damaging the ensemble. Rhythmic and dynamic changes kept it alive and though the prevailing rhythm was a quick 4/8, it never remained for long.

The last filler, as it were, was from a century earlier than anything else on the programme. Johannes Ockeghem was one of the most important 15th century composers. The setting of this Deo gracias (‘thanks be to God’) is assumed to be by him. It called for another re-arrangement of voices: all the women on the right, men on the left, for this 36-part setting of the words as a highly sophisticated canon piling one on top of another, but seeming to emerge from the lower voices. The men came first, then the women, uttering a musical interpretation of the significance of the words, presumably reflecting their use in the extraordinarily complex rituals of the Catholic church. The impact of the amazing variety that was based on endless repeats of two words and brief musical motifs, in the context of what we might imagine to be a later, more sophisticated era, struck me, as the music of the early Renaissance often does, as extraordinary.

This could well have been a concluding piece that might have left the audience as mesmerised, even stunned, as it was at the end of Spem in alium.

It’s been an extraordinary week: at one end, two of the greatest choral works (not counting Bach) of the late Baroque/Classical era, from Cantoris, and then a concert of some of the most sophisticated and emotionally powerful music written for voices, in the Renaissance and contemporary eras. This latter concert was indeed a triumph for The Tudor Consort and its conductor Michael Stewart.

And it occurs to me to apologise to those who have read this far, for the inordinate length of this review, a habit I rather deplore. The compulsion sometimes gets the better of me. 


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