“May the earth not be made desolate …” – Invocations from The Tudor Consort

Invocations – choral music that responds to pandemics and times of crisis

The Tudor Consort under the direction of Michael Stewart

St. Paul’s Cathedral, Saturday 29 August at 7pm

It is an eerie reminder of how little the human condition has changed over time when we consider that, in the 21st century, our approach to dealing with a global pandemic is essentially medieval: practices of social distancing and quarantine have their origins in the 14th century when European populations were trying to control outbreaks of the bubonic plague. While we now have an 0800 Healthline number that we can call at any time day or night to talk to someone about COVID-19, the equivalent for our medieval ancestors was to call upon, and invoke the powers of, divine heavyweights such as Mary, Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit, or St. Sebastian (patron saint of plague and protection) who were similarly available at all hours (and in high demand at the time).

On Saturday evening Wellington’s a capella vocal ensemble The Tudor Consort – a group of twenty-two singers under the direction of Michael Stewart – presented a range of beautiful choral pieces, most of them lamentations on the state of the world during an epidemic. Given the name of the ensemble, it was fitting that a number of works on the programme were indeed composed during the Tudor era (between 1485 and 1603).

The highly informative programme notes provided excellent background material to the presented pieces and reading through the pieces’ Latin texts with their descriptions of some of the disease’s symptoms was enlightening: ‘posuit me desolatam tota die maerore confectam’ (‘it has left me stunned and faint all day long’); ‘mortis ulcere’ (wound of death); ‘a me enerva infirmitatem noxiam vocatem epidemiam’ (‘untie me from the cords of harmful weakness called the epidemic) etc.

The concert began with the original plainsong ‘Stella caeli extirpavit’ which is considered to have been composed by the Sisters of the Monastery of Santa Clara in Coimbra Portugal during the Black Death (between 1347 and 1351). It is a plea for divine clemency in the face of illness and the plague, invoking Mary as a healer whose motherhood of Christ cured the ‘plague’ of original sin, asking her intercession for those suffering from physical disease. Three polyphonic settings of the plainsong’s text followed: one by John Cook, a musician who was among the personnel who accompanied the entourage of Henry V in the Agincourt expedition of 1415; and two others by Walter Lambe and John Thorne, both drawn from the Eton Choirbook, a richly illuminated manuscript collection of English sacred music composed during the late 15th century for use at Eton College. This was one of very few collections of Latin liturgical music to survive Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

While the melodic lines of these polyphonic settings all followed a clear intuition about which note or chord the piece would finish on, the tonal consciousness they reflected was very different. I found myself immersed in a past but beautiful tone world that existed before there was ever a concept of a Western tonal system. This was the aural sphere of (pretonal) modes of Gregorian chant, troubadour and trouvère music, and Minnesang. As demonstrated by the three presented settings of ‘Stella caeli extirpavit’, the focus of early polyphony is the horizontal movement of the individual voices (along the x-axis so to speak). As a result, there are moments where, in a vertical sense (i.e. on the y-axis), they chafe against each other momentarily to create striking and sometimes pungent dissonances.

The third of these settings by John Thorne consisted of a trio, performed by guest singer, Christopher Brewerton of the celebrated British men’s chorus The King’s Singers, alongside Tudor Consort members Philip Roderick and Andrea Cochrane. This exquisite performance gave us a glimpse of the divine.

Settings by English Renaissance composers William Byrd and Thomas Tallis followed, who, despite both being committed Catholics, found great favour with Queen Elizabeth I who was a Protestant (albeit a moderate one) with a weakness for elaborate Roman Catholic ritual. In 1575, she granted both Byrd and Tallis a twenty-one year monopoly for composing polyphonic music and a patent to print and publish music.

Byrd’s setting of the prayer ‘Recordare Domine’ demonstrated the composer’s liking for closely woven, imitative choral textures and the repeated dissonances on the syllables ‘desoletur terra’ were a lovely effect within the work’s smooth and lucid part writing. Tallis’s Lamentations of Jeremiah is a striking and emotive work, taking its inspiration from the poetic laments for the destruction in 586BC of Jerusalem as collected in the Old Testament’s Book of Lamentations. Punctuated only by the meditative, static treatment of the Hebrew letters (Aleph, Beth), Tallis’s music mirrors the text, achieving heightened poignancy through the use of dissonance: the contrastingly untroubled major tonality of ‘plorans ploravit’ (‘she weeps bitterly’) had a strangely charged intensity.

After a brief interval the concert continued with a motet by the Spanish composer Francisco Guerrero (1529-1599) who would have no doubt had quite a different take on Philip II’s ill-fated Armada (the Grande y Felicísima Armada) than his English counterparts. His motet Beatus es is a setting of a devotional prayer to Saint Sebastian who (along with Saint Roch) was regarded as having a special ability to intercede to protect from the plague as noted above (he is also the patron saint of archers and pin-makers). Despite the profound beauty of this work (that could have only delighted the Saint to whom it was addressed), Guerrero nonetheless ended up dying of the plague.

A further supplication to Saint Sebastian was then presented, this time in the form of a motet by Franco-Flemish composer Guillaume Dufay (circa 1397 to 1474). A group of soprano voices along with Peter Maunder and Sarah Rathbun on sackbut (an early form of the modern trombone) reopened the window into a tantalising and distant aural world of late medieval polyphony. The programme notes provided an excellent guide for the listener, explaining the canonic and ‘isorhythmic’ design of the work.

After a beautifully sung prayer for mercy ‘contra pestem’ (‘against the plague’) by Frenchman Philippe Verdelot (circa 1480 to circa 1540), the singers presented further Lamentations of Jeremiah, this time by yet another Catholic Elizabethan composer, Robert White (circa 1538 to 1574). His setting follows the example of Tallis, displaying a mastery of large-scale form and showing new harmonic boldness. The Tudor Consort’s rendition was, again, angelic.

The concert ended with somewhat of an experiment: a setting of Psalm 130 by 20th century Italian composer, Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968) whom I for one had never heard of before. This was an example of sumptuous late Romantic choral writing which completely disoriented me: my ears had become so attuned to the crystalline beauty of sacred Renaissance vocal music, and my aural receptivity had adjusted so much to pretonal modal horizons, that I found Pizzetti’s setting, although wonderfully performed, quite unintelligible. Perhaps I will approach this composer and this work again one day (possibly after some prolonged listening to Scriabin beforehand).

We are so lucky in Wellington to have such a wonderful group of singers as the Tudor Consort and, assuming that their musical supplications have an impact and COVID-19 finally disappears, I look forward to their next concert on 7 November that will take a specific moment in Tudor history as its theme: The Field of the Cloth of Gold (Camp du Drap d’Or), a tournament held as part of the (geo-political) summit between King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France five-hundred years ago in June 1520.

Musical gems at lunchtime

I Tesori (Treasures) – The Queen’s Closet with Pepe Becker (soprano)

Sharon Lehany (hoboy) – Gordon Lehany (baroque trumpet, recorder) – Peter Maunder (sackbut, recorder) – Jane Young (baroque ‘cello) – Kristina Zuelicke (harpsichord)

Lunchtime concert at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Friday 7 August, 12:45pm

My horoscope for Friday 7th August predicted that I “may get tempted to steal a short vacation in the midst of work” and, as it turned out, this prediction was indeed fulfilled when I entered St. Paul’s Cathedral at 12:40pm to thank God it was (finally) Friday.

It was then and there that soprano Pepe Becker and the local early music group The Queen’s Closet presented a delightful selection of 18th century Italian arias, all for soprano voice, basso continuo, and obbligati wind instruments, and all about the varied allurements and ensnarements of love, attraction, and associated drastic emotional torments, mood and hormonal fluctuations (my horoscope also mentioned that “a golden opportunity is likely to present itself on the romantic front, so be prepared to seize it.” However, that chalice thankfully passed me by).

The settings by Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747) of amatory Italian verse were a real discovery for me at this concert. I for one had never encountered this music before. Afterwards, following my curiosity, I found out that Bononcini enjoyed considerable success in London during the 1720s and that his popularity rivalled that of Georg Friedrich Händel.  In the political life of the city at the time, the Whig party apparently favoured Händel, while the Tories favoured Bononcini, and their competition inspired the epigram by John Byrom that made the phrase “Tweedledum and Tweedledee” famous:

Some say, compar’d to Bononcini
That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle
Strange all this Difference should be
‘Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee

So was it Bononcini and Händel whom Alice met through the looking glass so many years later in 1871? And could Bononcini be of any help or interest to our centre-right politicians at the moment?

The concert opened with an aria by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) for soprano, baroque trumpet and basso continuo – Mio tesoro per te moro  (Darling I would die for you) – that unfolded as a lyrical dialogue between the voice and the trumpet, both reverberating to great effect in the large space of the cathedral. It was an achievement of the early music revival in the 1980s, and of Dame Emma Kirkby in particular, to popularise a vocal aesthetic centred around natural declamation, minimal and finely controlled vibrato, agile coloratura and sensitivity to the words of the song. Wellington’s Pepe Becker is a specialist in this beautiful style of singing and demonstrated throughout the concert how well it serves the interpretation of this wonderful Italian baroque music.

The second aria, Alme Ingrate (Ungrateful soul) was composed by Emperor Joseph I of Austria (1678-1711) who was Bononcini’s employer during Bononcini’s time in Vienna from 1696 to 1711.  Emperor Joseph must have learned a thing or two from his Italian court musician. The aria is a duet between soprano voice and obbligato sackbut (an early form of the trombone). Compositions featuring voice and obbligato sackbut or trombone had reached an artistic peak in the Hapsburg Empire and at the Imperial Viennese Court at the time. Pepe Becker with Peter Maunder on the sackbut demonstrated the attraction of this combination with the smooth velvety sound of the sackbut melting together with the crystalline timbre of Pepe Becker’s voice.

Two arias by Bononcini followed, the first featuring the voice accompanied by the baroque oboe and the recorder. The instrumental parts were played dexterously by Sharon Lehany on the baroque oboe and Peter Maunder (who had quickly exchanged his sackbut for a recorder). The oboe and recorder were nicely balanced, again showing the great advantage of performing this repertoire on original or replica instruments of the day: the sound of the recorder can otherwise have trouble being clearly heard over modern instruments. Period instruments are lighter and allow for greater transparency in drawing out the lines of the music without any one voice inadvertently predominating. The basso continuo, capably provided by Kristina Zuelicke on harpsichord and Jane Young on baroque ‘cello gave a clear and nuanced the impetus to the aria, allowing the singer also to savour some delicious chromatic moments in her line. Jane Young’s baroque ‘cello has a beautifully carved lion’s head scroll, prompting her to give the instrument a name: Walter. The next Bononcini aria was again for voice and baroque trumpet, played by Gordon Lehany. This aria depicted love as form of ardent yet feigned hostility, as if Mars and Venus did not want ever to admit that they actually like each other. There was a sense of heroism and defiance in this aria with fanfare patterns, exquisite ornamentation in the vocal part, and some nicely imitated bugle calls from voice, trumpet and their echoes from somewhere or everywhere within the cathedral’s cavernous space. The valveless baroque trumpet is a fractious beast, and sometimes it was evident that it is hard to tame.

A lively ciaconna aria by Agostino Steffani (1654-1728) followed that seemed so cheerful and joyful in character considering that the aria’s base text was about jealousy and betrayal. The two obbligati recorders did not seem to be accusing one another of anything but seemed to chirp, flit and scurry about nimbly together like two spirited fantails. The basso continuo group, with Walter leading the charge, held their ground excellently throughout the brisk repeated ostinato figure, Jane Young every now and again placing a subtle emphasis to keep everyone in time.

A further bracket of Bononcini arias closed the programme. The aria Nel mio seno va serpendo was, of all the presented arias, the only real sorrowful lament. In a minor key, the aria interwove the expressive lines of the voice and the baroque oboe, drawing in particular on the oboe’s plaintive qualities.  The concert concluded joyfully with all instrumentalists accompanying the singer with assured vibrancy in a bold and triumphant display of vocal virtuosity and instrumental skill, giving the audience a final flavour of Bononcini’s achievement as a composer and demonstrating how, back in the day, he really was considered Händel’s only serious rival. What further treasures lie here? I wonder.

Musical voyages to distant places – Jenny Wollerman with the New Zealand String Quartet

Secrets of Sea and Space – a New Zealand Festival concert

Arnold Schönberg – String Quartet No. 2 (1908)
Alban Berg – Lyric Suite (1926)
Ross Harris – The Abiding Tides (2010)

The New Zealand String Quartet with soprano Jenny Wollerman

Saint Mary of the Angels, Boulcott Street, Wellington

Tuesday 10th March 2020

On Tuesday evening a very large congregation of music-followers assembled in the church of Saint Mary of the Angels to ascend into the stars and probe the depths of the sea. Saint Mary herself – in her capacity as Stella Maris (star of the sea) – seemed a well-suited hostess and patron for such an endeavour. Many young people were also present (noted here for the benefit of Radio New Zealand’s senior management). The concert, a highlight of the New Zealand Festival, offered us an opportunity to expand our listening horizons and engage with some rarely performed works that all combine, in some way, a vocal line with the established genre of the string quartet. The New Zealand String Quartet, together with soprano Jenny Wollerman, presented this concert with great energy, strength, and concentration, leading the listener through the intricate musical design of the works and contouring the musical gestures that make up their striking originality and expressiveness. The group’s approach to performance succeeded in drawing out the dark sonorities and sensuality of works that otherwise have a reputation for their cerebral rigour and association with prickly theoretical terms such as “dodecaphonic”, “atonal”, or “serialism”. Sometimes, however, in louder and intense passages, the performers’ efforts to make the music’s complex interwoven lines more transparent were compromised by the resonant acoustics of the church.

Arnold Schönberg’s ground-breaking second string quartet was first performed in Vienna in December 1908, provoking a riot that was even reported in New York newspapers as “an uproar such as no concert hall in the Austrian capital ever before had known”. The poems Litany (Litanei) and Rapture (Entrückung) that feature in the quartet’s third and fourth movements are taken from a cycle of poems by Stefan George who at the time was a distinctly contemporary voice in German poetry, thought of by his contemporaries as a kind of prophet and priest for whom poetry was a disciplined, performing art with a particular incantatory power. The quartet’s opening two instrumental movements were presented with great command and attention to detail, the players as a group clearly articulating Schönberg’s extended harmonic language, bold rhythmic gestures and making the most of the second movement’s reference to the old and sarcastic Viennese folksong “My dear Augustin, all is lost!” Jenny Wollerman then joined the quartet for the third and fourth movements. George’s poem Litany replicates the church liturgy consisting of a line of nine or ten syllables with a break between the fifth and the sixth (for example: Sacta Maria / ora pro nobis; Tief ist die Trauer / die mich umdüstert). The church setting for the concert contributed to the effect too: what better place to hear a litany than in a Catholic church! The climax of the movement occurs in the Litany’s last imploring phrase “ease me of passion!” (“nimm mir die Liebe!”) which is portrayed very strikingly in the music by a precipitously scary downward leap in the vocal part of over two octaves. Jenny Wollerman performed this leap with great athletic prowess. The ‘secrets of space’, from which the concert took its title, then became apparent as the fourth movement began with its very quiet, weightless rising figures in the violins that eerily adumbrate a new atmosphere. Lift off occurred gently with the entry of the soprano voice: “I sense the air of another planet”, she sings, announcing the quartet’s entry into an ‘extraterrestrial’ tonality-free soundscape. The visions of Stefan George’s poem Rapture correspond to the way the music liberates itself from the gravitational pull of any tonal centre. Jenny Wollerman sang George’s verses with marvellously ecstatic intensity: “I am dissolving into sound” (ich löse mich in tönen) she exclaimed, triggering a collective frisson in the audience. Perhaps in this moment, we were no longer concert-goers, but a grouping of devotees, converts, and disciples, sitting there mesmerised as she described her ascension, higher and higher into new ethereal  realms into which she was then completely and rapturously absorbed as “a spark of the holy fire” and as “a resonance of the holy voice.” After lifting poetry and music to new heights of “rapture”, Schönberg concludes the movement and the quartet (somewhat bizarrely) with a prosaic F-sharp major chord. Despite this offending major chord, the applause was, as to be expected, wild and as rapturous as ever.

Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite has been described as a “latent opera” in six acts, arranged in a fan-like formation that unfolds in a dramatic crescendo. Before playing the work, members of the quartet introduced the latent opera’s cast of characters and the general gist of its story (typical operatic themes of an impossible romance, unstilled longing, obsession, torment and despair). In the 1970s an American musicologist discovered a hidden vocal line in the composer’s draft of the work’s final movement – Largo desolato, finding it to be a setting of Stefan George’s German translation of Charles Baudelaire’s De profundis clamavi, the poet’s own dark version of Psalm 130. The six movements outline a psychographic curve of singularly powerful and contrasting emotional states. The New Zealand String Quartet masterfully showed how the Lyric Suite captures and expresses Berg’s intensification of moods in so many different ways: by the lasciviously descending harmonic progressions in the Andante amoroso for example; the grotesque scuffling in the Allegro misterioso; and the frenzied angular gestures of the Presto delirando. Jenny Wollerman joined the quartet for the Largo desolato to sing the secret libretto of the latent opera’s final act. Here the voice and the quartet convincingly conveyed the opera’s main protagonist’s (that is, the composer’s) sense of hopelessness, renunciation and desolation.

Ross Harris’s work The Abiding Tides is comprised of eight settings of poems by Vincent O’Sullivan mainly about ships sinking at sea. Although the work was introduced to the audience as relating specifically to the sinking of the RMS Titanic in the Northern Atlantic in 1912, the themes of sea voyage and shipwreck resonate very strongly much closer to home: 2,300 vessels have met their demise in New Zealand waters since the 1790s. Our forebears too all risked long voyages across vast oceans in canoes and sailing ships and burials at sea were frequent. O’Sullivan’s poems do not share the emphasis of Stefan George’s verses on form and metre, drawing more on qualities of prose poetry and the use of metaphors and imagery. The music is programmatic, following and reflecting the sentiments, images and (often very bleak) narratives of the poems. The quartet, with Jenny Wollerman at the helm, navigated the settings excellently, again capturing and conveying the mood of each. With the instrumental interludes between each setting the overall effect of the work was one of an extended rhapsody, floating, sinking, looking up at the moon and the sky (sometimes from beneath the water), watching the way light glitters on the ocean’s surface, or gazing at the ever present horizon. Harris covers a range of idioms in these settings from free canonic forms, waltz and Webernesque textures. It was very helpful as a listener to have the printed words: the acoustic of the church made it difficult at times to hear the sung words clearly. The work’s final text setting “Nox perpetua”, echoing Schönberg’s Litanei and Berg’s De profundis, was almost like a liturgical chant about the impenetrable darkness at the ocean floor.  It reminded me of the final images in Jane Campion’s celebrated 1993 New Zealand film The Piano where she cites the lines of Scottish poet Thomas Hood: “There is a silence where hath been no sound, / There is a silence where no sound may be, / In the cold grave – under the deep deep sea.”

The silence at the end was banished by continuous, loud and enthusiastic applause from an enraptured audience. On leaving the church, some audience members commented on the church’s bare wooden pews and how dreadfully uncomfortable they are. Uncomfortable pews are usually a specialist feature of Protestant churches, I thought, but even they often have upholstery nowadays: Beata Virgo Maria, audi verba mea.