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  –  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.