“Sing Joyfully” sings its name – The Tudor Consort’s 400th-year anniversary tribute to William Byrd

The Tudor Consort presents:

A 400th Year Celebration of the works of William Byrd (c.1540-1623)

Mass for Four Voices
– Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus & Benedictus, Agnus Dei
Ave Verum Corpus
Ne irascaris Domine satis
– Civitas Sancti tui
The Great Service
– Kyrie, Venite, Credo, Benedictus, Te Deum
Praise our Lord all ye Gentiles
Sing Joyfully

The Tudor Consort
– sopranos:  Erin King, Jane McKinlay, Melanie Newfield, Rebecca Stanton
–  altos:  Emma Drysdale, Alexander Granville, Tahlia Griffis. Kassandra Wang
–  tenors:  John Beaglehole, Peter Liley, Joshua Long, Herbert Zielinski
–  basses:  Brian Hesketh, Joshua Jamieson, Matthew Painter, Isaac Stone

Music Director;  Michael Stewart

Instrumentalists (The Great Service)
–  Cornetti:  Andrew Weir, Paula Weir
–  Sackbuts:  Jonathan Harker, Byron Newton, Peter Maunder, Luke Spence

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul, Molesworth St.

Saturday, 1st July 2023

Being a music-lover but still made occasionally aware of certain “gaps” in my knowledge of and love for various musical eras and their characteristic styles, I was forced to confront head-on such a one of these unchartered spots over recent days when asked to review a concert presented by the Tudor Consort, one devoted to the music of William Byrd on the occasion of the latter’s 400th anniversary. I make this statement knowing fully well that my opinions as expressed below of the quality of music-making I heard at the scheduled concert inevitably consist more of the fruits of nascent revelation than of prior knowledge or experience. Rather than striving to somehow “paper over” such gaping holes in my musical education I thought I would readily acknowledge my defects and seek to present my “delight in discovery”, hopefully, in the process of doing so conveying a measure of the extent to which the performers brought the music to glorious life for everybody present, including the uninitiated, such as myself.

Happily, much of the background information relating to the concert was provided in a pre-concert talk by the Tudor Consort’s Director Michel Stewart, who outlined some of the flavour of the times in which William Byrd lived and worked as a musician and a composer in England. It was of course a period dominated by religious and political upheavals brought about by both the Reformation and the changes in succession to the English throne, resulting in the older Roman Catholicism having to eventually give way to Protestantism as decreed by the Monarch of the time. Byrd, who was a devout Catholic, found himself unable to publicly practise his faith when the 1559 Act of Uniformity forbad the celebration of the Catholic liturgy. He was fortunate, however, that Queen Elizabeth I, who had taken the throne and firmly established the Protestant Church of England, was herself a music-lover and musician, and was at first tolerant of both Byrd’s and his fellow-composer (and former teacher) Thomas Tallis’ religious beliefs. Both composers were members of and wrote for the prestigious Chapel Royal, Byrd continuing to produce a substantial amount of English liturgical music, among which can be found numerous English Anthems, and “The Great Service”. The latter was not published in Byrd’s lifetime, about which there has been considerable conjecture – was this due to potential difficulties for Byrd caused by increasing anti-Catholic sentiment, even though the work was probably his most significant contribution to the Anglican liturgical world? He was, as well, engaged in writing settings of the Latin mass after he’d left London, removing himself from the scrutiny of the Queen’s “informers” regarding his participation in and contributions to secret Catholic rites of worship.  He continued to write settings in English as well, both sacred and secular, though his music’s Latin texts frequently made allusions to the plight of the Jews in Biblical times, relating the same to the English Catholic community’s present privations. After living for a while at Harlington, in Middlesex, he eventually moved his family to Stondon Massey in Essex where he died 400 years ago.

Michael Stewart drew our attention to several examples of what the evening’s programme would present us with, beginning with the “Catholic” first half, and mentioning in particular an item which the Consort had performed in their inaugural 1986 concert – the five-part motet Ne Irascaris Domine – Civitas sancti tui (Be not angry, O Lord…). The text consists of verses from Isaiah (64:9,10) interpolated into the Mass, an example of text derived from Scripture which could easily pertain to the situation of Catholics wanting to practise their faith in England at Byrd’s time. Another, earlier interpolation in the mass was the motet “Ave Verum Corpus”, for centuries a “forbidden pleasure” in England, being a Catholic work, but more recently a staple of what one might describe as almost interdenominational worship – and at Evensong, no less (all of this according to what I’ve recently read about the work!)

Regarding the concert’s “Anglican” second half, Stewart spoke of Byrd’s “The Great Service”, telling us that the evening’s performance would be augmented by instrumentalists in places (along with an accompanying organ, there were to be cornetts and sackbuts) as was sometimes done (and, according to some accounts I read, to the “indignation” of some more Puritan listeners!).  A particular feature of tonight’s performance was that, as well as two cornetts, it featured no less than four sackbuts accompanying the singers, and (as one of the players told me) was the first time so many of these particular instruments had been assembled for a concert in this country!

So it was with a good deal of anticipation that we awaited the arrival of the Tudor Consort voices for the concert’s first half, sixteen soloists in groups of four per single part, to firstly perform for us Byrd’s Mass for four voices. This was probably the first of his three Mass settings to be written, but the exact dates are unknown, due to the composer’s reluctance to publish these works in complete form at a time when such pro-Catholic activity was a potentially punishable offence. This also explains in part the simpler resources required for this music compared with those compositions by the composer for the Chapel Royal.

The opening Kyrie was exquisitely realised, sounded with a delicacy that suggested an awakening – with the following Christe came an increased sense of space, not merely from the cathedral acoustic, but a kind of widening of vocal possibility, as if after an awakening came a flowering.  The Kyrie’s return imparted a strengthening of this resolve, and a plaintiveness whose edge could be felt amidst the sound’s beauty, fully drawn by the end.

A tenor solo introduced the Gloria, an announcement followed by some concerted vocal excitement, even, I felt, a touch of urgency here and there, the lines thankfully binding together at Gratias agimus tibi, and building joyfully towards the soprano line at Deus Pater Omnipotens. The voices brought out Byrd’s different portrayal of Jesus Christi as unigenite (Only Son) and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) – in other words as a sacrifice! And what ritualistic beauty and wonderment the ensemble imparted to Qui tollis peccata mundi, an amalgam of radiance and faith, all the more intensified by Qui sedes a dextram Patris, with its sense of majesty. By contrast, the juices start to run with  Quoniam tu solus sanctus, building up to exhilaration at Cum Sancto Spiritu right through to the conclusive Amen!

It seems as though Byrd intended his movements of his masses to be interspersed with other material, perhaps randomly, perhaps in conjunction with various feast-days on the liturgical calendar, Whatever the case, the Tudor Consort chose firstly the motet Ave Verum Corpus, written by Byrd for the feast of Corpus Christi, a holy day outlawed in England following the Reformation, but still celebrated secretly – which circumstance would have given rise to its insertion in a Mass, as here. Its beautifully harmonic blend of tones at the opening has a resonance and richness befitting the sacredness of the image – Ave verum corpus natum – Hail, the true body! – while the voices’ incisive, pinpoint attack upon the words at Cuius latus perforatum (from whose pierced flank) readily pierced the flesh of one’s listening sensibility. And what a touching contrast we heard with O dulcis, O pie, O Jesu Filii Mariae, the lovely thirds of Miserere mei giving a real sense of mercy implored. The repeat of O Dulcis, and Miserere Mei was even more “covered” and replete with intent, which the defiant and resolute Amen strengthened splendidly.

The Credo, announced by the tenor once again, began with the women’s voices in a canon-like opening exchange which filled out as the men’s voices joined the mosaic-like textures of Patrem omnipotentem  and the abstracted word-painting of visibilium omnium et invisibilium with celestial assurance. I relished all over again my distant but still well-remembered delight in “bouncing” some of these words back and forth as a child in our penny-plainchant parish church version – Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine, Deum verum, de deo vero…. Such quasi-celestial pleasures were brought down to earth at Qui propter nos homines, the singers allowing a haze of luminosity to descend from the heights via a lovely cascading soprano line at de caelis. The almost lullabic Et in carnatus est was beautiful, culminating in a swaying factus est from the sopranos and tenors, before the pitiless announcement of the Crucifixus  darkened the spirits. What relief the announcement Et resurrexit tertia die here brought! And how thrillingly visceral was Et ascendit in coelum, along with the roulades of tone that accompanied Sedet ad dexteram Patris, and the reassuring cujus regni non erit finis.  Then the ceremonial declaration of faith at “Et unam sanctam catholicam Ecclesiam” gave all the more more life and overt purpose to the final Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum, which made leaps and bounds through Et vitam venturi saeculi to a resounding “Amen”.

By way of another break from the liturgical narrative we then heard the motet Ne Iracaris Domine – Civitas sancti tui (Be not angry, O Lord…), whose commentary regarding the plight of the Jewish people at the hands of  the oppressors would have resonated in the hearts and minds of Byrd’s fellow Catholics under a similar yoke of oppression. It received a performance from the Consort which, in my humble opinion produced the most beautifully sustained singing of the evening – begun by the male voices, the opening “Be not angry, O Lord” registered as a gentle lament rising from the depths, the words repeated with the entry of the women’s voices, the music growing in intensity as the “iniquities” of privation are mentioned, and bursting forth at Ecce, respice (the building’s resonances wondrously activated at this point!), continuing the beseechment with populus tuus omnes nos (Behold, we are all your people!) – everything long-breathed and intertwined, as if the whole world was raising its voice! The motet’s second part, Civitas sancti tui (Your Holy City),refers to the resultant desolation of Jerusalem (Zion), the music imparting more sorrow than anger throughout, and in places seeming to evoke memories of past glories and the iniquities that have brought desolation to the place of these glories.

I thought the Sanctus strangely austere and lament-like at first, the singers solemnly and intensely drawing us into the ceremonial realm, with the Hosanna at last bringing us some relief! All very beautiful……similarly, the Benedictus invited us to contemplate, at first, the “one who comes”, before giving voice to joyful energies with the concluding Hosanna. The Agnus Dei seemed like an extended return to the opening Kyrie at first, with the women’s voices beautifully filling out the two-part textures; but the music morphs into perhaps the most moving part of the whole Mass with the intensification of tones and textures towards the third Agnus Dei and its beautiful Dona Nobis Pacem at the end.

This was, as previously outlined, very much a concert of two halves, and it was possible to sense a different kind of excitement regarding the Consort’s presentation of the second part, featuring Byrd’s “The Great Service”, in addition to two “interpolations”, the 1611 “Praise Our Lord all ye Gentiles”, and the earlier anthem “Sing Joyfully”, both written for use in the Anglican service. What galvanised one’s interest was the appearance of the instrumentalists, whose task was to accompany those parts of “The Great Service” performed this evening – incidentally, two of these, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, were omitted, to be included instead at the Cathedral‘s Evensong service the following day.

Byrd wrote the work for the Chapel Royal, which accounts for the elaboration of the writing, both vocal and instrumental, compared with that for his Masses – he therefore had sufficient scope for six, eight and even ten-part counterpoint, often contrasting solo and small-ensemble lines with the larger groupings for dramatic and structural effect. According to what I’ve read Byrd was not averse to sackbuts and cornetti accompanying the voices alongside the organ, though various commentaries and reviews seem to differ on this point. My only comment as to their use in this present context is that their presence certainly contributed to the overall magnificence of the music’s sound, but made it even more difficult for the actual words to be deciphered – in the voluminous spaces of Wellington Cathedral, size (i.e., the number of performers) is one of the considerations which does seem to really matter!

For this reason most of the second half was a markedly different listening experience to that heard before the interval – the exceptions were the aforementioned “interpolations”, the texts of both of which I could follow more readily, as with the Mass and the motets we heard before the interval. In a less cavernous acoustic I would imagine we could experience (and enjoy) much of the added magnificence of the wind-and-brass sounds without sacrificing the clarity of the words to the same extent. After the deliciously light and airy opening “O come, let us sing unto the Lord”, the full range of voices and instruments in most of the other movements created an overwhelming impression which one simply had to relish for its own, (admittedly at times thrilling!) sonorous qualities. The sound by no means lacked variety, but the contrasts in tone and colour I found difficult to pinpoint in the text. I wasn’t alone in this as my companion similarly attested afterwards to a strain throughout in making out where the voices had gotten up to in the ensembled passages.

The difference became obvious with the following unaccompanied Praise our Lord all ye Gentiles, in which the singing and word-pointing had such an infectious sense of unbridled energy throughout, as if “all ye peoples” around the globe were helping to make it spin, the final “Amen” being particularly vertiginous for all concerned, with the acoustic actually heightening the sense of abandonment.

Next was the Creed, introduced by the tenor, then with voices uplifted at first to God alone, then with the sounds opened up to creation at And of all things visible and invisible  (my familiarity with the text here helping to identify the words!).The Almighty was suitably solemnised at God of Gods, Light of Light, Very God of very God, the voices then descending and imparting a more human voice at who, for us men, then celebrating at and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost. The voices beautifully resonated the words He suffered and was buried,  the day of resurrection “grown” within the music as if by divine will, as was the following and ascended into heaven, drawn upwards by the airborne voices.

I found both the Benedictus and  the Te Deum from “The Service” more difficult to follow through unfamiliarity with each of the texts, despite having the words to hand, though there were compensations afforded by the music’s kaleidoscopic textures, the constant shifting of form, pattern and colour in the music making for endless fascination, especially as these qualities were so writ-large in such a listening environment, if at the expense of the words’ clarity. The instruments themselves never obtruded in an unseemly or ill-balanced sense – as an orchestral texture they blended richly and colourfully, providing a fascinatingly flavoured contrast with the other music in the evening’s programme. Perhaps because of my relative inexperience with these genres, I had no “puritan” objection whatever to the presence of the instruments, which, if performed in a less resonant location would have given more ambient space to word-sounding while still making a world of difference.

Happily, I also took away from the concert the impression made by the programme’s second-to-last item, the name of which, incidentally, Sing Joyfully, was  given to the presentation by the group – an impression of joyful immersion in singing and musicality from all concerned, and of communication to listeners via sound, aspect and movement. I had an opportunity to briefly talk with one of the singers afterwards whose only complaint regarding what they’d done was that they were only getting one chance at performing the music – quite apart from any idea that they might be able to “improve” things that didn’t quite come off as hoped, the singer lamented the “end” of the experience as it was, rather than having the opportunity to do something all over again that was so wonderful! Apart from the sadness at it coming to such an abrupt end, I thought the sentiment paid a richly-deserved tribute to the composer and his music and to the excellence of what was achieved by those who took part – Tudor Consort Director, Michael Stewart, and his wonderful singers and (for the second half) instrumentalists. It’s a tribute I’m pleased to be able to endorse as a listener new to this music and duly captivated by the beauty and lasting relevance of it all.


An evocative blend of liturgy, history, and magisterial polyphony

PALESTRINA –  Missa Papae Marcelli 

The Tudor Consort,
director, Michael Stewart

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

3rd September 2022

For readers without a keen interest in Renaissance polyphony performance practice, let me say upfront that the Tudor Consort gave a luminous, beautifully tuned, highly polished and uplifting performance of Palestrina’s most famous mass setting, one which could easily hold its own against the many existing recordings of the piece by eminent choral ensembles. Arguably, the first challenge of performing such a well-beloved masterpiece is simply to live up to people’s memories of it; not to place unwanted obstacles on the well-worn path the audience has looked forward to treading. This, however, gives rise to a second challenge: how to make the experience of listening new, interesting, and worth showing up for on a chilly Wellington evening?  The Tudor Consort (henceforth TC) is more than capable of meeting the first challenge, and one could easily imagine the live recording of this performance taking up a place in RNZ Concert’s regular rotation. I could end this review here were it not for the much more interesting question of how Michael Stewart and his singers addressed themselves to the second challenge.

Per the concert programme, the Missa Papae Marcelli (henceforth MPM) was presented “in the form of a Mass reconstruction for the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” This practice of liturgical reconstruction, established by TC’s founding director Simon Ravens, might seem a straightforward idea enough, but in fact it raises more questions than it answers: which liturgy is to be reconstructed? How strictly? On the basis of what information? And to what artistic end?  

In the given case, one might have expected to hear a Catholic Mass as Palestrina himself would have experienced it – a literal reconstruction of the historical context from which the MPM arose.  What we got, however, was something more creative and nuanced. Michael Stewart’s programming is always thoughtful and intelligent, and here he made strategic departures from both liturgical and historical fidelity for the sake of musical interest. These included (1) the selection of Gregorian chants, (2) the inclusion of polyphonic settings of some of the chants, and (3) the voicing of the Gospel reading. Essentially, the programme presented the music of the Tridentine Mass as it might have been heard in the century before Vatican II (i.e., well after Palestrina) with a few additional flourishes that, while extra-liturgical, made sound artistic sense.  

First, the selection of chants. The liturgical chants that comprise the fabric of the Mass fall into two categories, ordinary (performed at every Mass) and proper (specific to the date in the liturgical calendar). Mass settings like Palestrina’s provide polyphonic versions of the ordinary chants (the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Santus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei), leaving space for the propers (Introit, Gradual, etc.) to be filled in as appropriate; for this Mass reconstruction, Stewart selected the chants proper to the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which falls on 8 September.  Gregorian chant itself underwent a significant “reconstruction” process in the nineteenth century, led by the monks of Solemnes Abbey in France, whose editions provide the basis of most contemporary chant performance, including this one (though many conductors, including Stewart, disregard the Solemnes rhythm markings, which are controversial). While the Solemnes editions purport to restore the chants to their “original” forms, this is precisely why they don’t reflect what Palestrina himself would have heard – since he lived in the very midst of the ongoing process of revision (“corruption”!) that the Solemnes monks would later seek to reverse.

The legend that Palestrina “saved” church polyphony from a death sentence at the Council of Trent by writing the MPM – in which the wordiest texts, those of the Gloria and Credo, are pronounced simultaneously by (almost) all the singers, making the words easy to hear – makes the juxtaposition of the Mass with the “restored” 19th-century chants particularly piquant. While the Palestrina-as-saviour story is considered apocryphal, the textual transparency of the MPM is undeniably striking, and probably does reflect the composer’s awareness of contemporary concerns about the intelligibility of liturgical texts – concerns that would also have influenced ongoing revisions to the plainchant sections of the mass. The refurbished Solemnes chants, however, are often quite complex and ornate, making few concessions to intelligibility! This complexity was underscored by the slow, careful chanting of TC’s tenors and basses during the Introit, as the choir processed to the front of the church; though monodic, the chant is not so simple that walking and singing at the same time comes easily. They got palpably livelier once they had arrived in place and had a conductor in front of them.

In a second departure from strict authenticity, Stewart followed the plainchant Introit, “Salve, Sancta Parens,” with a polyphonic setting of the same text by Adrian Willaert (1490-1562), who (as maestro di cappella at St Mark’s in Venice 1527-62) was a dominant figure in the musical landscape of Palestrina’s youth. Willaert’s motet is scored for six voices: two free-composed and the others paired off in canons, one of which paraphrases the plainchant melody. This produces the effect of a self-propelling machine in perpetual motion, as each new phrase interrupts the echo of the preceding one and sets off its own echo, which is in turn interrupted.  Although the plainchant melody – which we had just heard – serves as a cantus firmus, it is virtually indistinguishable in the complex interplay of voices, even in TC’s crisp and disciplined performance. Their ensemble singing here was spectacular; I particularly enjoyed their smooth braking at the end of the piece, with Stewart’s conducting imposing an orderly ritardando and clearly laying out the resolution of each line into the final cadence. 

By the time we got to Palestrina, then, the audience had already heard two ways in which a liturgical text could be both beautified and, to some extent, obscured by a musical setting. The comparative transparency of the MPM settings – the Kyrie and Gloria are sung back-to-back – was immediately palpable, underscored by TC’s crisp singing, clear entrances, and (in the Kyrie at least) perfectly simultaneous consonants.  These were followed by a brief Collect, then the Gradual and Alleluia chants, both gloriously melismatic, followed by the Gospel reading, also chanted in Latin (I should mention that the performance was accompanied by slides which gave the Latin text and English translation of each piece of liturgy, an excellent idea, much better than forcing people to squint at program notes, and only slightly marred by typos in the Latin).  Here we met Stewart’s third piece of artistic licence, which was to split up the Gospel reading among many (all?) of the male voices, rather than having one singer impersonate the priest.  This innovation was inspired by the form of the text, which for this Feast Day happens to be the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel – the genealogy of Jesus stretching all the way back to Abraham, a long, long series of “begat”s. Scattering these among a series of soloists, entering as it were on each other’s heels, both added textural interest and sped things up.  By breaking up the monotony of the text, it paradoxically underlined it, adding a new dimension of meaning to the text by calling our attention to the sheer number of generations that had to survive, and meetings (each a small miracle in its way) that had to occur, to get from Abraham to Jesus via King David.  As a scholar of literature, I appreciated this – but nonetheless welcomed the relief of Palestrina’s exuberant Credo setting, performed with a beautifully blended tone and perfect diction to round off the first half of the concert.

The Credo marks the end of the Mass of the Catechumens, which is followed in the Tridentine rite by the Mass of the Faithful, so this was a liturgically as well as musically appropriate place to break for a short interval before recommencing with the Offertory, this time chanted by the treble voices. The Offertory text, “Beata Es, Virgo Maria,” would return at the end of the concert in Palestrina’s glorious 8-part setting, another inspired moment of liturgical deconstruction. First, however, we had to get through the central drama of the Mass, the liturgy of the Eucharist.  The choir gave beautiful renderings of Palestrina’s Sanctus and Agnus Dei movements, with legato lines so sinuous they could plausibly pass for angelic. If I had a wish here, I’d have liked to hear the sopranos open up more – I’m a fan of the adult soprano sound in early music, a huge improvement over the children favoured by some – and similarly in the Merulo motet that duplicated the Communion chant, “Beata viscera,” later on (bookending the duplication of the Introit at the start of the programme).  Merulo, eight years younger than Palestrina, provided an interesting contrast to their older contemporary Willaert, and to Palestrina himself, but I can’t say this piece made a huge impression on me; in contrast, the choir absolutely lit up when they returned to Palestrina with the closing “Beata Es” motet. Whether this reflects my taste, or theirs, or the solemnity of the Roman liturgy, or simply the mastery of Palestrina as compared to everyone else, who can say, but the choir felt like a different instrument performing Palestrina than they did in the rest of the programme; here, they genuinely soared.  

Congratulations to the Tudor Consort on this moving and evocative concert, a compelling tribute to Palestrina as well as an intellectually and artistically coherent performance.


Christmas in 1677

‘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!


“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.

Baroque Voices’ “Bingen to Becker” a harmonious celebration

Baroque Voices presents:
BINGEN TO BECKER (Vocal music from the 12th to the 21st Century)

A Concert of Music by Hildegard von Bingen, Morley, Dowland, Hume, Monteverdi, Poulenc, Durufle, Pepe Becker, Jack Body, Constantini, Handel, Annea Lockwood, and Anon/Trad…..

Baroque Voices: Pepe Becker (director), Anna Sedcole, Jane McKinlay, Rowena Simpson, Andrea Cochrane, Katherine Hodge (with Robert Oliver – bass viol)

The Third Eye – Tuatara’s Temple of Taste, Arthur St., Te Aro, Wellington

Sunday 16th August, 2020

Thanks to a newly-emerged Covid-19 chapter in Auckland we were a precautionary “restricted” audience for this concert, but of good cheer, nevertheless, with convivial company and food and drink available at the venue, the evocatively-named “The Third Eye – Tuatara’s Temple of Taste”, from out of which scenario “emerged” the musicians, informally dressed and congregating at the platform end of the listening-space, six singers and a bass violist, all as relaxed as if spontaneously inspired to entertain the company! By way of settling both the ensemble and its audience in, we were treated straightaway to the programme’s first two items, the first something of a “Pepe Becker Special”, Hildegard of Bingen’s O ignis spiritus, the soprano having made Hildegard’s resonant, ecstatic vocal lines music very much her own of late in these parts, and deservedly so – this was followed by an anonymous 14th-Century 3-part Canon “O Virgo Splendens” whose catchy dance-rhythms combined sacred worship and secular energy in a wholly delightful way, the ensemble’s six voices imitating a flowing river of streamlets intertwining and separating within the irresistible flow of the whole.

The introduction having “cleared” all throat and nasal (singers) and auricular (listeners) passages, Becker officially welcomed us to the concert, intended as a 25th Birthday affair for the ensemble, but “extended” to being closer to a 26th  celebration by dint of the aforementioned worldwide events exerting their influence to within Aotearoa’s shores. She talked about the concert’s themes, the items prominently figuring both love and death, and suggesting that, with humanity still in the grip of an on-going ailment, the music was expressing something of where we all were at present. Thomas Morley’s Arise, get up, my dear appropriately “revitalised” the programme from this point onwards, the singing confidently resounding through the range of tones from the altos’ beginning phrases to the silvery utterances of the sopranos at the top. “Semper Dowland semper dolens” went the name of one of the composer’s songs, and came to characterize Dowland’s oeuvre in the public’s mind – and Can she excuse my wrongs? proved no exception to this mood, Pepe Becker’s plaintive tones given a sure trajectory by Robert Oliver’s nimble accompaniments.  The changes were further rung by Oliver’s sure-fingered solo rendition of Tobias Hume’s A Pavin, featuring some extremely deft double-stopping enlivening the second part of the dance’s ritual of elegant sobriety!

Again Dowland figured with a characteristically-titled song Flow my tears, the Becker/Oliver combination suitably sombre in effect, the soprano doing well in a vocal range I wouldn’t have associated with her natural gifts, achieving dignity and clarity – the second half of the song brought forth a degree of liberation into the light, with phrases such as “Hark! – you shadows!” ringing out clearly. What a difference in every way was wrought by Monteverdi’s Madrigal Come dolce hoggi (How sweet is the breeze!) from the composer’s Book 9, the singers’ tones appropriately bright and outdoors-ish at the beginning, the vocal expression thrown widely and exploringly, the vocal ornamentations strengthening on repetition as the voices accustomed themselves to each frisson of energy, the piece’s ending expansive and resonantly lingering in the silences – lovely! The unaccompanied Poulenc Ave Verum Corpus bore an attractive, melancholy colour,  the “open” harmonies occasionally adding a medieval-sounding touch – and while the Durufle piece Tota pulchra es shared some features with the Poulenc, a pleasing melancholy, and “older” touches of harmony, the piece had a livelier, more insistent and declamatory texture, kept airborne by a lovely rocking rhythm, here beautifully regulated by the singers.

To finish the half, Becker introduced her Taurus 1: Night and Morning, a setting of Robert Browning’s pair of poems “Meeting at Night” and “Parting at Morning”, wryly mentioning to us the piece was now twenty years old (an “excesses of youth” commentary, perhaps?)  – the singers’ mingling of exhalations of breath, charged utterances and harmonic tensions, with the darkness lit by occasionally soprano soarings, all established the “romantic tryst” mood, the brief (and presumably heartbreaking) epilogue of the morning’s parting encapsulating the experience as a recalled moment in time.

On to the concert’s second half, then it was, beginning with two “Nowel/Nowell” settings (though unseasonal, it hardly matters, as each Christmas comes so quickly on the heels of another in any case, these days!) – both lively, “ringing” kinds of evocations in their different ways, the first revolving the joyous message in an infectious “back-and-forth” way, with acclamation-like cries at the end. Jack Body’s “Lithuanian manner” Nowell began with characteristically crunchy harmonies exchanged by two pairs of singers facing one another, something Mussorgsky (of “Pictures from and Exhibition” fame) would have, I think, relished, in memory of his similarly sequenced dialogues between voices in “The Market Place at Limoges” – here, the singers  built on the earthy figurations’ growing excitement and accumulations of joy and certainty as the exchanges reached a plateau of exhilaration, humanity enlivened by tidings from on high!

Alessandro Constantini’s Confitemini Domino continued the festive mood, resounding with joyous and angelic utterances, Oliver’s accompaniments reinforcing the Alleluia’s dancing rhythms with gusto. A remarkable and contradictory precursor of a similar mood evoked by the great Handel was the following duet No, di voi no vo’fidarmi, here sung superbly by Becker and Rowena Simpson, with Oliver’s assured bass viol accompaniment,  the familiar lines of “For unto us a Child in Born” from Messiah  used in the service of a completely different text, one of accusation and dismissal of love – Handel had written this (and another duet Quel fior che all’alba ride similarly re-used) a matter of weeks before beginning work on Messiah, and duly incorporating the music into the larger work! – what a delight to encounter the “original” version of such well-known music, and to hear such a committed and assured performance!

Gentler, with longer-breathed lines, and tensions of a different kind brought into play was another work by Handel, Amor, gioie mi porge, a somewhat calmer portrayal of the hardships of love, one which gathered weight and darkness as it proceeded, taking in a central, more energetic section allowing the sopranos to soar, but returning to beseechment and despair at the end, the two singers, Anna Sedcole and Becker sustaining their lines throughout with great spirit! The prospect of hearing any of Annea Lockwood’s music always excites interest, though I was disarmed by the simplicity of her 1983 work Malolo, (Rest), a Samoan lullaby using hypnotically repeating sounds, the singers “terracing” their utterances to enable all kinds of echoes and resonances, the lower voices finishing the piece as hauntingly as  it began.

Three traditionally Irish folk-song settings arranged by Pepe Becker were filled with drollery, melancholy and gentle wit, my favourite being “The Galbally Farmer”, with its rhythmic “snap”, earthy, drone-like accompaniment, and wryly-sounding vocal reinforcements of some of the text’s phrases, concluding with the tried-and-true existentialist lament “I wish I had never seen Galbally Town!”. Becker’s compositional skills were again evoked by When will we know?, a gentle balled-like setting whose closely-worked harmonies had a cool, even bluesy colouring from the viol’s plucked-string accompaniments and wind-blown vocal abandonments at the song’s end. We thought at first the evening’s music would finish by circling back to its opening, with another of Hildegard’s hymns, O viridissima Virga – this one a long-breathed unison for all the voices, ambiently accompanied by Becker’s shruti box and Oliver’s viol, the whole a kind of ritualized “bringing together” of elements presented in a flexible, organic, very human manner, the voices not perfectly together, but in expressive purpose acting as one – to our surprise and delight, we were treated to a brief encore, which deserves its own paragraph……

Once attributed to Henry Purcell, How Great is the Pleasure – Canon for Three Voices was actually written by Dr. Henry Harington (1727-1816) an English physician, composer and author, and was published around 1780 with the title Love and Music – a Favourite Catch for Three Voices. Beginning in unison, with accompaniment from the viol, the melody soared like a Shaker Hymn, then divided among three parts, finishing with words that could have described the evening’s music-making – “When harmony, sweet harmony, and love do unite!” Most satisfying!…….




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. 


From murderous to beguiling – a concert of life and art from the Tudor Consort and Aurora IV

The Tudor Consort presents:
(with Aurora IV)

CARLO GESUALDO DA VENOSA (1565-1613) – Moro lasso (from Sesto libro di madrigali)
ANDREW SMITH (b.1970) – Salme 55
THOMAS WEELKES (1576-1623) – Come sirrah jack ho / Lo, country sports / Strike it up, tabor (madrigals)
WILLIAM BYRD (1543-1623) – Domine quis habitabit
ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810-56) – Talismane Op.141 No.4
HENRY PURCELL (1659-95) – Rejoice in the Lord Alway
WILLIAM BYRD – Kyrie / Agnus Dei (from Mass for 4 Voices)
PAUL HINDEMITH (1895-1963) – Six Chansons (1939)
NICOLAS GOMBERT (c.1495- c.1560) – Magnificat Tertii et Octavi Toni

The Tudor Consort
Michael Stewart (director)
Aurora IV
Toby Gee (countertenor), Julian Chu-Tan, Richard Taylor (tenors), Simon Christie (bass)

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Saturday, 22nd June 2019

Michael Stewart and the Tudor Consort certainly got their presentation “Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know” off to a properly gruesome start with the music of a composer who’s now generally known to have been a murderer, Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa – in fact, we in the audience were firstly “treated” to a fairly “no holds barred” description by Michael Stewart of the circumstances and salient details of the composer’s central role in the deadly occurrence, one which some people might have thought of as “too much information”! However, it certainly “prepared” us for the composer’s uniquely intense and agitated music in his madrigal “Moro lasso al mio duolo”, whose tones, intervals and harmonies seemed themselves to suffer in situ with the texts’ extreme angsts and tensions.

Commentators have, in relation to the composer, endlessly discussed the “association” between life and art, and the paradox exemplified by people who were creative geniuses but of dubious personal character – of particular interest in Gesualdo’s case is the extent to which one’s interest in his music is fuelled by knowledge of his life and character, and vice-versa (a 2011 New Yorker article by Alex Ross, who wrote “The Rest is Noise” is particularly thought-provoking in this respect https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/12/19/prince-of-darkness  –  The Tudor Consort’s finely-graded performance of “Moro lasso” certainly conveyed its composer’s free-wheeling flamboyance of dynamics, harmony and modulation, making for an entirely spontaneous, unpredictable and ungratified outpouring of sounds, something “rich and strange”.

With Andrew Smith’s Salme 55, performed for us by the vocal quartet Aurora IV, we found ourselves still in “Gesualdo country”, as this work was inspired by the latter’s music as well as those same events which had been outlined for us by Michael Stewart. Smith had composed a set of a capella pieces for a work called Notes for a Requiem which also included some of Gesualdo’s own motets, various spoken texts relating to events in Gesualdo’s life, and a dance, reinforcing those dramatic and tragic happenings. Tonight we got the verse sequences from that work, settings of Psalm 55, the well-known “prayer for deliverance” from both enemy and treacherous friend – the relative “sparseness” of the vocal textures following the Gesualdo work almost like the result of an archaeological exhumation of something whose bones made up in strength and purpose for what else had been pared away by the ravages of time.

While the Gesualdo work had an almost indecent freedom from inhibition of feeling, these settings by Andrew Smith used simpler, starker, more direct modes of expression, albeit framing the different sequences in almost ritualistic ways – in the opening Exaudi, (LIsten!) for example, the tenor expounded the text against evocative, echoing repetitions from the other three singers, firstly of the word “exaudi”, and then in the next section “Cor meum” (My heart), and all finally bursting out with “Timor et tremor” (Fear and trembling) in the final paragraph. The second sequence, Columba, with its famous line “Oh, for the wings of a dove!”, extended this technique to interchanging voices, the singers taking turns to deliver phrases from the text against a backdrop of repetitions of the word “Columba” (dove), and later “Festinabo” (In a hurry), the alternating voices expertly and evocatively imprinting both meaning and manner to the treatment of the text.

The lament’s full force was unleashed at Non enim inimicus (For it is not an enemy), with stinging focus, alternated by phrases voiced with great tenderness – the words’ sorrow and drama were made manifest here by the voices at places such as Veniat super eos mors (Let death take them). I was reminded of Britten’s “Rejoice in the lamb” in parts of the bass-led Extendit manum suam (He extended his hand), with its portentous outlining of treachery, a mood which was dispelled by the tenor with Tu autem Deus (But Thou, God…), the singer’s upwardly-leaping phrases conveying a frisson of faith and hope, and intoning a movingly simple habeo tui (I trust in you).

A world with a difference was evoked by three madrigals from Thomas Weelkes, whose character as outlined by Stewart, was more bad than mad, and perhaps more frustrating than “dangerous” to know! Previously I’d known only the richly-moving work “Death hath deprived me”, which Weelkes wrote at Thomas Morley’s death – by contrast these were earthy, self-indulgent tributes to simple pleasures, perhaps symptomatic of the composer’s unfortunate penchant for alcohol (although not mentioned in any of these works) which caused strife between Weelkes and his employers!

Come, Sirrah Jack, ho, dwelt on the pleasures of a pipe of tobacco (“for the blood, it is very good”), made from lovely, tumbling lines, delightfully calibrated to evoke a throng of unrepentant users making fun of the moralists at “Then those that do condemn it” with relish. Lo, Country Sports was something of a dance ritual, the group sounding the out-of-doors pleasures with ever-increasing delight as the music rolled merrily on; while Strike it up, tabor brought together the earthiness of the first madrigal with the dance-like energies of the second one. These voices properly “danced” throughout the first verse, until things ended somewhat querulously, with the comment “Fie, you dance false!”

How different again was the music we next heard, that of William Byrd, whose claim to inclusion in the programme stemmed from his ability to survive the sometimes murderous goings-on of opposing (Catholic and Protestant) regimes in English history, writing music under both kinds of strictures! Byrd maintained his position in the Chapel Royal under Elizabeth I, though his Domine , quis habitabit dates from an earlier period, a setting of the first half of Psalm 15 (Vulgate 14), set also by his near-contemporaries Thomas Tallis, William Mundy, Robert White and Robert Parsons. The text is concerned with living according to God’s commandments, and could easily have been applied to Protestants as well as Catholics, avoiding the political to-and-fro of the times.

Here the music immediately generated a sense of magnificence and purpose, something equally of its time and timeless, in effect. Stewart and the Consort’s richly-wrought voices brought out the almost celestial, music-of-the-spheres aspects of the work, the sounds describing vistas of timeless, weightless beauty, the soprano line particularly ethereal and radiant. The contrast at “Contemptus est in oculis ejus” (Contemptible in his sight….) was almost tsunami-like it its impact, before the final “Qui facet haec” returned us surely and gratefully to the eternities of the opening. Later in the programme we heard two movements of Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, a sombre, serious “Kyrie” beautifully voiced by the vocal quartet, and a more “exposed” sound at the beginning of “Agnus Dei”, more contrapuntal than harmonic at first, with all four voices involved the second time through, and increasingly “concerted” for the final repetition, the voices gaining in presence and resonance during the “Dona nobis pacem”.

A “find” for me was Robert Schumann’s Talismane, whose text, by Goethe, is a paean of praise to God as a life-giving force, sentiments that the composer exuberantly responded to at the start, the music hurling its message East and West, then more gently and resonantly encompassing “northern and southern lands” as similarly under his sway, Schumann compellingly setting exultation alongside poetic rumination. The “double choir” employed by the composer created ear-catching antiphonal exchanges and resonant echoings throughout, pushing the St.Andrews’ acoustic to extremes in places – however the poet’s “breathing” imagery of constant renewal brought forth in conclusion a moving sense of turbulent spirits “at peace” in Schumann’s writing. As tenor Richard Taylor informed us during the course of his valuable introduction to the work, whatever such “peace of mind” was enjoyed by Schumann became in later years tragically undermined by mental illness, and resulted in the composer’s confinement to an institution.

I would never have counted Henry Purcell as amongst the “carousers” in any line-up of well-known composers, before attending this concert – an indication, no doubt, of my lack of biographical knowledge regarding the composer – but legend has it that Purcell liked his ale, and was reputedly locked out of the family house by his wife for coming home late after an extended session at the “local”, at which point he caught a chill, leading to his death (the other, rather more romantic story is that he succumbed to tuberculosis)! For the concert’s purposes, conjecture ruled for the moment, the composer’s place in this concert’s lineup secured with some “bad” behaviour! – Purcell’s “Rejoice in the Lord always” was originally called “The Bell Anthem” because of the bell-imitations in the instrumental opening (played here most deliciously by Michael Stewart on the characterful St.Andrew’s chamber organ, the conducting of this piece in the capable hands of Richard Taylor). Begun by a vocal trio, the charming contrast between the single voices and the whole ensemble was one of the piece’s most engaging features, along with the bell-like organ tones.

Far more apposite regarding the programme’s intent was the contribution of Paul Hindemith, a set of “Six Chansons” that I’d never heard, and would never have guessed the composer had I encountered them unnamed! Hindemith, of course, became persona non grata to the Nazis during the 1930s (his music was officially proclaimed as “entartete” (degenerate),  Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels calling him an “atonal noisemaker”!), and left Germany to live temporarily in Turkey, before officially emigrating to Switzerland in 1938, and then to the USA in 1940.

Hindemith wrote this a capella work while in Switzerland, settings of some of the French poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, who usually wrote in German. Less rigorous and more lyrical than a good deal of Hindemith’s other music, the settings are delightful and attractive, as if the composer had been able to, in a chameleon-like way, take on a Gallic kind of voice in his music – the first song, La biche (The doe), having a Ravel-like delicacy. I don’t know Hindemith’s other vocal works, apart from parts of his opera, Mathis der Maler – but it seemed, in the second song Un cygne (A swan)  the composer had the gift of word-painting in his music, the sounds expressing the imagery of the text, the actual movement of the swan upon the water. Even more amazement was conjured up with my reaction to the third song, Puisque tout passe (Since all is passing) which was, here, light, rapid and evanescent – what I would previously had said was very “un-Hindemith”! Printemps (Spring) was a hymn-like seasonal tribute, touchingly characterising the words “Quand il faudra nous taire” (When it comes time for us to fall silent) in a simple, almost parlando fashion. A severe unison began En hiver (In winter) but, despite the almost grisly aspect of the words, evoking the presence of death, the sounds had a light, lyrical character, throughout, “placing” both darkness and light in a balanced way. The final poem, Verger (Orchard) a meditation on the earth’s sustenance of the body and the spirit, interwove melody and rhythmic trajectory with the lightest of touches between upper and lower voices in the first and final verses, while intensifying their exchanges throughout the middle verse, again, the music mirroring the words, strong at ce que pese, et ce qui nourrit (sustains and nourishes us), and light and wind-blown at presque dormant en son ancient rond (almost asleep in the fountain’s circle). Everywhere the conductor’s and singers’ deftness of touch lightly and surely brought out the music’s surprisingly un-Teutonic character.

As if Gesualdo’s bloodsoaked crimes and Weelkes’ penchant for excessive drinking hadn’t sufficiently besmirched the somewhat rarefied “aura” of creativity normally associated with composers. Michael Stewart had one more subject for scrutiny almost certainly to be found wanting, in the person of Nicolas Gombert, a native of Flanders who became court composer to Emperor Charles V and music director of the Royal Chapel, and, as a priest, was the official “Master of the Boys” (Magister Pueorum) at the Chapel, but who, in 1540, was then convicted of sexual congress with a boy in his care, and sentenced to hard labour in the galleys. Freed after a number of years, Gombert never returned to the court, and indeed, faded into obscurity, his actual death date unknown, but probably occurring around 1560. Nonetheless, he was one of the most famous and influential composers in his day, his music exemplifying the fully-developed polyphonic style. Succeeding composers were to write in a more simplified manner, however, as Gombert had pushed his extremely complex  idioms as far as they could go – he influenced instrumental writing in this respect as well.

It’s possible Gombert composed the Magnificat we heard this evening as one of his “Swan Songs”, written by way of seeking a pardon for his crimes from the Emperor (he was eventually released by Charles V, on account of these efforts). One of eight Magnificat composed in each of the “Tones”, this work follows the same pattern as all the others, the odd-numbered verses in “chant” and the even -numbered ones given polyphonic treatment. The chant/polyphonic alternations as a whole gave the work we heard a contrasting vigour, and a theatricality, further exemplified by a certain agglomeration of forces as the music proceeded, as if the music’s influence was spreading throughout the world. By the time the concluding “Gloria Patri” was reached, we in the audience felt the composer had included us in the “Sicut erat” response, and part of each of us seemed to be resonating with the music!

Of course, none of the effects described above could have been achieved without the seemingly inexhaustible voices, skills, and communication capacities throughout an entire evening of the singers The Tudor Consort and their director, Michael Stewart, and the singers of Aurora IV.

Tudor Consort opens 2019 season with Renaissance madrigals at summer concert in the sun

The Tudor Consort directed by Michael Stewart

Chansons d’amour

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.




Singular, well-conceived recital by male four-voice ensemble, reaching far and wide

Aurora IV: Dark Light, To mark the Spring Equinox
‘Exploring darkness and light and the shadows in between’

Toby Gee (counter-tenor), Richard Taylor (tenor), Julian Chu-Tan (baritone), Simon Christie (bass)

Music from 500 years ago to five years ago, by Lassus, Sheppard, Jean Mouton, Schubert, William Harris, Andrew Smith, anonymous plainchant and two poems (Emily Dickinson and Anne Glenny Wilson)

Pukeahu National War Memorial, Hall of Memories, Carillon, Mount Cook

Saturday 22 September, 8 pm

The beautiful, and acoustically excellent Hall of Memories carved into the bottom of the Carillon is one of the loveliest places for music in the city. It’s a wonder that it’s not more used for music recitals.

My previous musical experiences here have been by choirs: The Tudor Consort, Nota Bene; and just three months ago, Peter Mechen reviewed a concert by Baroque Voices.

Aurora IV have moved around. Their last concert was in the TGIF series at the Cathedral of St Paul’s, and my last hearing, in November 2017, was at St Andrew’s on The Terrace with a programme that was nearly as wide-ranging at this was.

The Hall was lit by a dozen candles on the floor and others on ledges on the side walls. It created a strangely spiritual atmosphere that was generally appropriate to the sense of the music. However, it made the reviewer’s task tricky, for it was not possible to read the titles of the pieces, and so there was a certain amount of guesswork, later, in fitting my sketchy notes to the works listed on the programme; which was otherwise excellent, offering words of each piece, in English. Ideally, it’s also nice for the original language to be supplied as well… but you can’t have everything.

The programme, of sixteen pieces, with all the words ran to three pages. Though being advertised as being about an hour, it seemed improbable at the outset, but the timing was indeed right.

The theme of the concert, the Equinox, when hours of light start to exceed those of the dark, drew on music, and some poetry, that touched on the transition from darkness to the light, which lends itself to symbolic references, both religious and secular.

The major element was parts of a Requiem Mass by Orlando de Lasso (here Orlandus Lassus), late 16th century.

After the lights went down, distant sounds of singing emerged from behind us, as from nowhere: a plainsong setting of a verse from the Lamenatations of Jeremiah. Sung by a solo tenor – presumably Richard Taylor – it seemed to float into the high vault of the chapel.

There were also pieces by Oslo-resident British composer Andrew Smith. I was intrigued later as I read my notes alongside the programme to find that I’d remarked on the Renaissance sounds, alternating with distinctly contemporary passages; it turned out to be Smith’s Flos regalis virginalis, and was relieved to read that this was the composer’s style: “his modern harmonic twists cast sparks of light against the darker, mystical tones of plainsong and medieval polyphony“.

Furthermore, it created a sound image of more than four voices. Which was a characteristic of their singing that impressed me many times: I was hearing both the richness of a small choir, but of one whose perfect ensemble gave the impression of single voices.

Other Andrew Smith pieces were a Magnificat. Once again I found its nature enigmatic and my notes bore the cryptic word ‘language?’; it must have been Latin. However, I enjoyed the echoey, complex harmonies, along with touches of plainsong. Their third Smith piece was And Surrexit Christus (I’m not sure whether that is usually known as ‘Hodie Christus natus est’). Again, not being able to read the programme, I scribbled ‘wide harmonies evolving into more dissonant’ music. Aurora IV have recently given the New Zealand premieres of all his pieces performed in this concert.

The Introit, ‘Requiem aeternam’ of Lassus’s Missa pro defunctis, was the first of three excerpts; later we heard his setting of Psalm 23, as a Responsory, commonly used in the Mass, then the Sanctus, and near the end of the concert, the Lux aeterna. My note in the dark about the first of Lassus’s excerpts remarked ‘perfectly blended voices’, each sounding of similar impressive quality’, and later that the bass, Simon Christie, sounded ‘clearly of international stature’. That section included ‘Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion, Et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem’ and then the Kyrie.

Emily Dickinson’s comforting, much loved poem, ‘We grow accustomed to the dark’ followed, seeming to touch emotions very similar to the impact of the preceding music, though written three centuries later. It was admirably read, without a trace of elocuted, ‘poetic’ diction, by Toby Gee who also read Anne Glenny Wilson’s ‘A spring afternoon in New Zealand’ which was very popular in the 1890s. Not a poet I’d come across, and I enjoyed this poem and others by her that I found (inevitably, in these Googling times); quite comparable to Swinburne or Thomas Hardy, Bridges or Drinkwater, and Emily Dickinson if you like, of similar sensibility.

Quis dabit oculis? is a lament on the death of Queen Anne of Brittany by Jean Mouton – 16th century, featuring counter-tenor Toby Gee prominently. The Irish folksong, She moved through the fair, followed, after two of the singers had moved to the sides, conjured such a different aural landscape, in clearly pronounced Irish accents, in the seamless sounds of polyphony. (Was the remote sound of a flute an external coincidence or a part of the performance?).

Schubert’s Die Nacht was the only German entrant in the concert; apart from the distinct sound of the language, I might have been pressed to identify the composer, but the singing was perfectly idiomatic in words by a rather obscure poet of Schubert’s time. (part songs – there are many – by German Lieder composers, seem to be rarely performed).

Another anthem, in English, was William Harris’s Holy is the true light, a typical 20th century, four-part anthem, showing the quartet’s ease in a shift from the Medieval or Renaissance to a musically touching, contemporary idiom, not nearly as saccharine as such pieces sometimes sound.

Another outlier was a Latin motet by John Shepard, English mid-16th century, In Manus tuas, with a dominant tenor line handling the plainchant, between weaving polyphony, written probably during Mary’s reign when it was safe to compose Catholic music in Latin (dangerous not to!).

It ended with plainsong, as it had begun: first, lamenting the fall of Jerusalem, and the last offering the light of everlasting paradise. They were more or less forced to sing an encore: ‘Il bianco e dolore cigno’ by Flemish composer Jacques Arcadelt, which I was driven to find and play several versions of with great delight, on YouTube.

It was a totally admirable concert by four male singers whose voices coalesced in a way that is rare; and as well, they found the appropriate tone and rhythms that coloured the words and their musical settings, with sensitivity, awareness of their era, and just sheer intelligence.


Monteverdi’s Orfeo – a “rarely comest…spirit of delight” from Eternity Opera

An opera in Five Acts
Words by Alessandro Striggio

Cast of Singers
Music – Laura Loach
Orfeo – Will King
Euridice – Alexandra Gandianco
Nymph / Prosperine – Olivia Sheat
Shepherd 1 / Infernal Spirit 2  – Garth Norman
Shepherd 2 – Sally Haywood
Shepherd 3 / Infernal Spirit 1 – Peter Liley
Shepherd 4 / Infernal Spirit 3 – Minto Fung
Messsenger – Alexandra Woodhouse Appleby
Hope – Milla Dickens
Charon / Pluto – Joe Haddow
Echo – Tania Dreaver
Apollo – Theo Moolenaar
Chorus – Bill MacKenzie
Chorus – Philip Oliver

Eternity Renaissance Orchestra

Concertmaster – Anne Loeser (violin)
Viola – Sophia Acheson
Viola da Gamba & ‘Cello – Imogen Granwal
Cornetto & Trumpet – Peter Reid
Alto & Tenor Sackbuts & Recorder – Peter Maunder
Bass Sackbut – Jonathan Harker
Guitar – Christopher Hill
Theorbo – Jonathan Le Coeq
Triple Harp – Tiffany Baker

Music Director – Simon Romanos
Producers – Emma Beale, Minto Fung, Alex Galvin
Lighting –  Haami Hawkins
Repetiteurs – Craig Newsome, Joel Rudolph

Hannah Playhouse, Wellington

Saturday 4th August, 2018

To my consternation, I learned after the performance on Saturday evening was completed, that this was to be the only “outing” for Eternity Opera’s production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo! On a number of counts, this was regrettable, if only for the fact that I knew of a number of people who weren’t able to attend the performance and who had expected (as I certainly did) that there would be at least one further chance to catch up with it – a matinee the following afternoon, perhaps? But no, that was “it”, I’m afraid – and though I’m counting myself among the lucky ones who witnessed such a bold and breathlessly beautiful undertaking by Eternity Opera, I’m feeling dismayed by the thought that neither would a new audience be given the opportunity to enjoy Monteverdi’s masterpiece, nor would the performers be allowed the satisfaction of consolidating their achievement with a second public performance.

There would have doubtless been any number of reasons for this, both artistic and financial – my general lamentations merely reflect the interest and excitement which I experienced over the time leading up to the production, the in situ enjoyment of and pleasure in the performances, and the aftermath’s glow of satisfaction as I recalled the music’s and the presentation’s delights. A pity that such an enterprising venture (one, incidentally, which was completely sold out) lacked what it was in material terms that would have enabled the performance to have become a “season”, however tantalisingly brief a one!

But such was not to be – and we had, instead, performers giving their all as if their lives depended on the outcome, presumably buoyed along by knowing that this was going to be their only “shot” at the business in hand, and in the process conveying something of that feeling to we in the audience. Even before the music began our expectations of something out of the ordinary were galvanised by the presence of certain instruments alone, such as the gigantic theorbo, a viola da gamba, a triple harp, a cornetto and a couple of tarnished, trombone-like sackbuts alongside those which were rather more familiar, all brandished by the players of the Eternity Renaissance Orchestra.

In Monteverdi’s score over forty instruments are designated, though their exact usage was often decided upon by the interpreters depending upon the forces (and performing spaces) available – and the number of players needed were always fewer because the composer kept certain instruments for certain scenes. Here, for example, the score was realised by no more than nine players, some of whom changed to a different instrument in places – to give one example, sackbut player Peter Maunder demonstrated all-round skills with some nifty recorder playing at certain points.

At the beginning we very properly got all three renditions of the well-known opening flourishes, a martial-sounding toccata, played variously by the winds and strings at contrasting dynamic levels, as was the custom at the court of Mantua, in honour of the Duke. On the face of things an obsequious gesture very much of its time, the sounds have since become a splendid springboard for the entry of listeners into a timeless realm of expression, graced by Monteverdi’s music and  Striggio’s poetry. Mentioning at this point the momentary inaccuracies of intonation and rhythm in the playing at the outset is to get the unimportant things out of the way, first – what fully engaged us instead was the music-making’s focused purpose and its continuation throughout the drama, a purpose which never flagged across the work’s five-act span.

This was a “concert” rather than a “staged” performance, and was sung in English, both of which circumstances enabling the Introduction’s singer, Laura Loach, to completely command the stage in the role of Music. Her whole deportment was arresting, her diction perfect, and her voice true, appropriately varied, and thoroughly engaging, everything beautifully balanced between voice and instruments. While neither Garth Norman nor Sally Haywood (as First and Second Shepherds respectively) could similarly imbue their voices with similar strength and precise focus, each maintained a steady vocal line with sufficient expression to give their words an inner life. Each of these singers then joined in with the choruses, as did the others at various times throughout.

Conductor Simon Romanos kept things judiciously moving between singers and instrumentalists, picking up the lines between voices and the various ritornellos and sinfonias as required, and keeping firm control of the numerous changes of rhythm and metre as well. He seemed to give the individual singers the space they required to properly “phrase” their individual figurations, and the instrumental ensemble similar leeway throughout. Olivia Sheat as Nymph took a few phrases-worth of space, I thought, for her voice to settle in her solo, though in the Fourth Act singing the part of Proserpine I thought her tones steady, her vocal inflections convincing and her sense of rapport with her cohort as Pluto, Joe Haddow, absolutely delightful!

With the arrival of Will King’s Orfeo on the scene, everything seemed to begin to pulsate more deeply, partly to do, I think with the expectation created by the imminent appearance of the eponymous hero, but also with King’s own vibrant sense of presence in the role, capped off by his fine, ringing voice! His on-stage partner, Alexandra Gandianco as Eurydice, though not as resplendent vocally, responded with a clear, true voice, leading up to the choruses which proclaimed the marriage, the “Come Hymen, come” sequence particularly beautiful, the voices evocatively augmented by instrumental strains. Various expressions of delight came from Peter Liley’s Third Shepherd, again the voice not especially voluminous but focused and agile – the singers felt more freedom in the following duet and trio, whose words remarked on the symbolic progress of winter to spring.

Act Two’s liveliness at the outset mirrored the nuptial happiness of Orfeo in his declaration of new-found joy at the beauty of the woods, and the sturdy duetted response of the two shepherds, Garth Norman and Peter Liley, with wonderful support from the ensemble, including great violin- and recorder-playing. The mood became even more euphoric with Orfeo’s comparison of his previous misery to his present joy, made all the more exuberant by King’s exultant singing and the ensemble’s energetic playing.  All of this, of course, made the arrival of Alexandra Woodhouse-Appleby’s Messenger all the more dark and disturbing, here given an expressively stark and tragic aspect by the singer’s power of concentrated sorrow in both appearance and voice. At the news of Euridice’s sudden death the shock was galvanic, the hurt unmistakable on Orfeo’s part, King’s response then beautifully grown out of his character’s dumbstruck grief towards a powerful and passionate resolve to rescue his beloved and bring her back “to see again the stars”.

Act Three’s sonorous opening brought both splendour and darkness, the brasses thrilling amid the occasional spill with both regal pomp at the beginning, and grimmer timbres of the utmost solemnity as Orfeo entered accompanied by Hope, attempting to gain access to the Underworld. Milla Dickens’ Hope was truly and steadily sung, the voice nicely expanding as it ascended, and stylishly negotiating the figurations, bringing convincing emphasis to the words “Abandon all hope ye who enter here!”. King’s impassioned plea for Hope to remain was startlingly interrupted by the infernal combination of voice and rasping instrumental timbres, from Joe Haddow as the ferryman Charon, challenging Orfeo’s presence with beautifully sepulchral tones, splendidly supported by the brasses. The hero’s famous aria “Possente spirto” received a tremendous performance from King, ably supported by various instrumental combinations, firstly the pair of duetting solo strings, followed by the cornetto, whose phrases were echoed most effectively offstage by a sackbut. Then the guitar, theorbo and bass viol augmented the singer’s fearless coloratura-punctuated passages, leaving the triple harp to fill the brief interlude before the singer’s “Orfeo am I” with flourishes and gestures that seemed to bring time to a standstill.

At the conclusion of King’s impassioned pleas of “Give me back my love”, we were riveted, taken up with the heart-rending eloquence of the singer’s supplications, so that no-one dared move, much less applaud!! The ensuing ritornello expressed Orfeo’s ultimate triumph, as Charon slept, allowing the hero entry into the infernal regions. Act Four began with the appearance of the Underworld’s Royal Couple, Proserpine and Pluto, the former pleading with the latter to allow Orfeo to take Euridice back to the world of light and stars with him. Both of the two singers I thought built on what they had established with a separate role earlier in the drama, Olivia Sheat as Proserpine seeming to me to “find” her focused tones more freely and comfortably than when a Nymph, and Joe Haddow as Pluto an even more darkly imposing personality than his Charon – between them they actually generated a touch of “infernal” chemistry, which, together with Pluto’s decision to allow Orfeo to recover Euridice bore out the chorus’s comment in the wake of the interchange “Today, pity and love triumph in Hell”.

From this came the extraordinary sequence of events during which Euridice was regained and then irretrievably lost by Orfeo, as he wrestled with his conflicting emotions before eventually disobeying Pluto’s edict that he was not to turn and look back at her during their outward journey. Will King conveyed most tellingly the character’s characteristic volatility with both body and voice, bearing out a later chorus comment that “Orpheus conquered hell, but was conquered by his own emotions – worthy of eternal fame shall be only he who has victory over himself”. Again, the character’s overweening confidence, underlined by the jaunty instrumental accompaniments, with strings and continuo giving the rhythms plenty of spring, was in a few moments dashed by a sudden loss of confidence and crisis of faith.

Even though the drama wasn’t in a strict sense “staged” here, I still felt the moment of Euridice’s loss was awkwardly presented by the protagonists in a visual sense – their actions and movements didn’t clearly enough convey what the words and music were saying (all admittedly difficult to do in a concert scenario!). Alexandra Gandianco’s singing admirably served to put across Euridice’s sorrow and despair, as did that of King as her would-be saviour, characterised here as reaping a whirlwind out of his impetuosities. The tragedy of the moment was superbly underlined by the sneering brasses, who joined with the strings and continuo to realise a sardonic processional, heralding the chorus’s already-quoted verdict on the hero’s flawed resolve.

A cruelly cheerful-sounding sinfonia launched the final Act, bringing Orfeo to those same woods where news of Euridice’s death was brought to him. Again, Will King was equal to the music’s possibilities, realising the character with an affecting sense of heartbreak and sorrow, the mood amplified by the affecting strains of Tania Dreaver’s voice as Echo, and further intensified by Orfeo’s self-indulgence in his grief, complaining at the paucity of Echo’s replies. It remained for Apollo to descend from the heights, Theo Moolenaar making a properly dignified entrance as the God of the Sun and Light and Healing, the voice comforting and true-toned, rather than overtly celestial and all-commanding, chiding Orfeo for his intemperance, and his obsession with earthly, as opposed to heavenly delights. Their duetting worked well as Orfeo was taken to heaven, having been promised by his father that he would enjoy Euridice’s likeness in the sun and the stars.

It fell to the chorus to further lighten the mood of tragedy with sprightly and energetic verses celebrating the hero’s transfiguration, a mood we were invited to join along with the singers and the ensemble by conductor Simon Romanos, our cheerful company clapping in time with the energetic moresca rhythms that concluded the work. Rather than belittling the story’s intensities and profundities, the “lightness of being” feeling engendered by these concluding gaieties served to highlight all the more the epic nature and scope of the drama we had witnessed, a quality of overall perspective which some of Mozart’s greatest music also possesses. It was to the company’s credit that the production and its performers realised, I thought, Monteverdi’s genius at bringing into being such a work, so that its impact, like Orfeo’s lyre, sang and resounded long after the work’s last strains had been sounded.