‘SALVATORIS’ – Christmas music from THE QUEEN’S CLOSET
Works by Vejvanovsky, Fux, and Volckmar
Old St Paul’s, Mulgrave St., Wellington
Saturday, 18th December, 2021
The Queen’s Closet is an early music ensemble specialising in ‘historically-inspired’ performance of music from the English Restoration (1660-1714, approximately) on period instruments at Baroque pitches. The focus of this concert was two works by the Habsburg composer Pavel Vejvanovsky (c. 1633-1693), with a piece each by Fux and Volckmar. The performers were members of The Queen’s Closet (Sarah Marten and Emma Brewerton (violins), Lyndsay Mountfort (viola), Jane Young (cello), Peter Reid and Chris Woolley (trumpets), Peter Maunder (alto and tenor sackbut), Sharon Lehany (hoboy), Gordon Lehany (director, and also trumpet, horn and viola), Anna Sedcole (soprano), Andrea Cochrane (alto) and David Morriss (bass))plus Paul Rosoman (organ).
There was no printed programme. What follows is gleaned from the brief oral introductions to the works given in the concert by Gordon Lehany, the ensemble’s artistic director; his answers to my questions after the concert; and The Queen’s Closet web site; as well as what my imperfect ears told me. Should you seek more information from the web site, note that the URL is https://thequeenscloset.net (.com will take you somewhere quite different). The programme is up on the web site on the ensemble’s “Past Performances” page
The first work was Vejvanovsky’s Sonata Natalis, featuring strings (two violins, a viola, and a cello), the organ, and two natural trumpets played by Gordon Lehany and Peter Reid. The instruments were tuned to ‘about A 415’, a semitone lower than the organ, although Lehany described the pitch for the concert as ‘a compromise’, saying that the work by Vejvanovsky should probably be played at A 466. The Sonata Natalis was charming, with a beautiful slow movement featuring solo first violin bookended by two faster movements demanding much of the trumpets.
The sound of the natural trumpet is much softer and warmer than that of modern trumpets. It has no valves and the tubing is twice as long. The mouthpiece is both wider and shallower than a standard trumpet mouthpiece. All of that requires a softer attack than is used on a modern instrument. No valves means that the instrument is restricted to the notes of the harmonic series and all the tuning is created by the player’s embouchure. . Thanks to the physics of natural brass instruments, certain notes in the harmonic series sit higher or lower than most of us expect to hear today. Vejvanovsky was himself a trumpet player and he wrote sensitively for the instrument, skilfully contrasting pure consonances created by two natural trumpets in harmony, with the dissonances that stem from writing the high or low partials. It was immediately apparent that two trumpets did not overwhelm the strings (the players use gut strings, baroque bows and baroque technique) as modern trumpets would have done, and the balance between brass, strings, and organ was consequently very attractive. Old St Paul’s is a sympathetic venue for early music, and its size and acoustics seemed just right.
The next work was a setting of the Marian hymn ‘Alma Redemptoris Mater’ by Fux, featuring solos by alto sackbut and soprano. Peter Maunder played the sackbut elegantly and Anna Sedcole sang the soprano part with style. The sackbut is the Renaissance and Baroque ancestor or cousin of the modern trombone. It comes in various sizes, from alto to contra-bass, and has a smaller and more cylindrical bore and a less flared bell. The sound is more covered and blends well with voices. (A duet between a soprano and a modern trombone would tax both singer and audience beyond endurance.)
Johann Joseph Fux wrote Gradus ad Parnassum, the textbook on counterpoint that educated Bach and Mozart and is still quoted today. So it is no surprise that he was a dab hand at managing the various voices. Like Palestrina, whom Fux greatly admired, he allowed the music to illuminate the text, without using excessively melismatic ‘look at me’ passages. I especially loved the melisma on the ‘ran’ syllable of ‘natura mirante’, which made it sound even more marvellous. It was a tribute to Sedcole’s diction and Fux’s writing that I could follow every word without the aid of a written text. The sackbut sometimes supported the voice, sometimes imitated it; there were also delicious imitative rhythms. The sackbut was in supportive mode on the words ‘virgo prius’; and together they sincerely sought the Virgin’s intercession for their sins on the final ‘peccatorum miserere’. Gorgeous!
The Volckmar work was written around 1720, which makes him a contemporary of Bach. ‘Little is known about Volckmar,’ Lehany told us, ‘except that he was a Kapellmeister somewhere in Germany.’ The work was not titled – the manuscript is headed ‘In tempore Adventus’, i.e. to be performed during Advent – but it was an aria for bass-baritone and natural horn. I think it was a setting of Psalm 95 from the Lutheran Bible, judging by the fragments of German I caught. Lehany swapped his trumpet for a horn, and a viola was added to the string section. The bass-baritone was David Morriss, whose speaking voice is well known to RNZ Concert listeners.
The structure seemed to be as follows: the singer would cant (introduce) the introduction to each verse (e.g. ‘Der Herr ist gross’ – God is great) and the instruments would comment on it; then the singer would join them in a harmonic elaboration of the musical idea. The natural horn, like the trumpets, is softer than the modern instrument and also allows the composer to make the most of the dissonances generated by high and low partials in the instrument’s harmonic series. Morriss’s bottom notes were lovely, though not loud. The pitch at A415 may have been an issue for him in the lower register, when he was sometimes covered by the horn. But I was struck by his beautiful upper register, when he and Lyndsay Mountfort (viola) had duets. I also very much liked Morriss’s baroque technique in the semi-quaver runs. Overall the Volckmar was interesting and pleasant to listen to, but I felt that practically any bass aria by Bach would knock it into a cocked hat.
The final work was the Missa Salvatoris by Vejvanovsky. ‘Imagine yourself in the year 1677, in a church in Kroměříž….’. The mass is scored for soprano, alto, tenor and bass with optional sackbuts, plus two trumpets as well as violins, violas (the versatile Lehany played viola, with Peter Reid and Chris Woolley playing trumpet), cello, and organ. Morriss and Sedcole were joined by alto Andrea Cochrane. With only three singers, Peter Maunder performed the tenor line on the tenor sackbut, and Sharon Lehany added hoboy to the mix. The Missa Salvatoris consisted of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei.
Immediately I could hear why the Queen’s Closet are so excited about Vejvanovsky’s music. Andrea Cochrane sounded glorious, with Sedcole’s upper register stylish and beautiful. (Morriss was sometimes a bit buried by the sackbut.) The opening to the Gloria was canted by the bass, followed by lovely brass writing, and immediately a beautiful matching of alto and trumpets on ‘gloriam tuam’. ‘Suscipe, suscipe,’ sang the bass, answered first by the women, then the trumpets. There was a trio on ‘Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto’; then a separate entry by the alto for ‘Crucifixus’, followed sombrely by soprano and then bass, with ‘etiam pro nobis’ stated as plain fact. ‘Et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam’ was announced by the trumpets playing their highest notes of the whole concert.
And so it continued. The setting of the text was sensitive, and the deft use of instrumental and vocal colour by composer and performers was a joy to the ear.
The Queen’s Closet, like the rest of us, had a difficult year, with cancelled concerts and stalled projects. But coming up next year is a collaboration with playwright (and trumpeter) Dave Armstrong: a completely new semi-opera with Purcell’s music re-imagined with a contemporary New Zealand text. Count on it: I’ll be there!