Friday, 6 March 2015

Mary, Star of the Sea - Gothic Voices

Gothic Voices (Steven Harrold, Julian Podger, Catherine King, Stephen Charlsworth)
Gothic Voices
(Steven Harrold, Julian Podger,
Catherine King, Stephen Charlsworth)
Mary, Star of the Sea - music from 13th, 14th, 15th century, Joanne Metcalf, Arvo Part, Andrew Smith; Gothic Voices; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 4 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Medieval and contemporary music on a Marian theme from this brilliant ensemble.

Gothic Voices (Catherine King, mezzo-soprano, Steven Harrold and Julian Podger, tenor, Stephen Charlesworth, baritone) brought their programme Mary, Star of the Sea to the Cadogan Hall on 4 March 2015 as part of Choral at Cadogan. Themed around Mary in all her religious guises, the programme combined the medieval music for which Gothic Voices became known, with contemporary pieces by Joanne Metcalf, Arvo Part and Andrew Smith. Much of the earlier music in the programme was anonymous, but the named composers were John Dunstaple, Ricard Shert, Godric of Finchale, Leonel Power and Walter Frye. Catherine King had been ill and so her role in the concert was shared with the mezzo-soprano Caroline Trevor.

Gothic Voices was founded in 1980 by the scholar and musician Christopher Page (I still have fond memories of Page's period running BBC Radio 3's Early Music Show). The group has an extensive catalogue of CD's including an important series for Hyperion. I have to confess that more recently I had lost sight of the group, but in fact the present line-up has been consistent since 1995.

The first half of the programme had a certain didactic element as the medieval music was arranged roughly chronologically so that we could hear the development of the different forms.We started with two anonymous 13th century pieces, a conductus Ave Maria and a motet Super te Ierusalem/Sed fulsit virginitas. The conductus has no notated rhythm, and so can be performed quite freely, as well as having a considerable use of melisma and Ave Maria was given a flexible yet virile performance by the three men. The motet was notable for that characteristic medieval music effect, the use of two texts simultaneously and this example, as sung by Caroline Trevor and the three men, was brilliant and hypnotic, its busy texture dazzling with vocal virtuosity and the miracle of fitting everything together.

From the 14th century we heard the anonymous cantilenas (sung by King, Harrold & Podger), Stella maris illustrans omnia and Laetetur celi curia. Both used a more mellifluous form of lyrical polyphony with the voices often moving in parallel. We returned to the 12th century briefly, for the anonymous conductus, Thronus regis sung as a tenor solo by Julian Podger, but then moved to the 15th century for Beata mater (sung by Trevor, Podger & Charleswoth) by John Dunstaple (c1390 - 1453), the Ave, decus seculi (sung by the men) by Richard Sher (fl.1428-77) and Dunstaple's Ave Maris Stella (sung by Trevor, Podger, Harrold & Charlesworth). Beata Mater had virtuosic, melismatic parts for Trevor and Podger over Charlesworth singing chant-based music in longer notes. Ave decus seculi is carol, which simply refers to the piece's use of a regular refrain rather than any Christmas associations. Two voices were used for the verses with the third adding richness to the refrain. A busy, lively piece with, again, some bravura moments. Ave Maris Stella had solo verses alternating with more lively, melismatic three part verses.

Interleaved through this were movements from Joanna Metcalf's Il nome del bel fiore. Joanna Metcalf (born 1958) set excerpts from Dante. The concert opened with the first part, which was simply Catherine King singing a long melismatic solo on the word Maria. This wasn't neo-medieval music as the outlines of the melody were clearly modern, but it breathed the same air. The fourth movement of the piece, Il nom del bel fior which set Dante, was quite intense with clearly modern harmonies but also a sense of using older musical techniques and a medieval sense of the linear. It was tightly written and received a stunning performance from the singers. A further movement was also a long meditation on the word Maria, this time for all four singers; it was not unlike a conductus but with a harder edge to it

The first half finished with music by Arvo Part, his Most Holy Mother of God from 2003. This made great use of note clusters and silences, to create a work which was intense and not entirely comfortable.

The second half moved from the mythical/religious aspects of Mary to the more human ones and her relationship with Christ. The group opened with an anonymous 13th century polytextual piece which combined the short English text, Dou way Robyn sung to a repeated folk-like verse by Charlesworth, with Harrold's more virtuoso yet lyrical line setting the Lain Sancta mater gratiae and fitting over the top.

Christ and Sainte Marie by Godric of Finchale (c1065-1170) was sung by King, Podger and Harrold with the men singing the Kyrie Eleison text alternating with King singing an Early English text about Christ and Mary. The anonymous 15th century English Discant, Sancta Maria virgo was sung by the men with a lovely upper tenor part over slower moving lower parts. The anonymous 13th century Stond wel, moder, under rode was sung by King, Podger, Harrold and Charlesworth with each taking a verse in turn. The music was chant-based an only at the end did we get tutti. The text was an English poem from around 1250 based on the Latin Stabat juxta Christi crucem about Mary at the foot of the cross. Beata progenies by Leonel Power (1370/85 - 1445), sung by Trevor, Harrold and Charlesworth was another English Discant but a busy top line over slope moving parallel parts.

There followed by the world premiere of Stand wel, moder under rode (sung by King, Podger, Harrold and Charlesworth) by Andrew Smith (born 1970) which set the same text as the earlier piece. The work was divided into two parts, performed at different points of the programme.  The parallel movement of the voices evoked the earlier medieval pieces but Smith used rather close dense harmonies. It was a quite gentle, intense piece in a way. It was quite a long poem (22 verses) this part set six verses but even then Smith seemed to rather settled into a vocal texture and continue with it, perhaps intending to evoke the repetitive and meditative elements to the text.

Jesu, fili virginis, an anonymous 15th century carol, was sung by King, Podger and Harrold, it was quite a busy piece with some tricky moments in the verses. Ave regina caelorum (a 4) by Walter Frye (fl.1450-1475) was more modern in that Frye had written four rather different moving parts.

Part two of Andrew Smith's new piece followed. Where part one had been rather settled, this one developed with changes of texture and volume, getting more intense as the poem reached its conclusion. The result was a sober and considered piece, which was undoubtedly intense.

For the final section of the programme the men sang the anonymous Gaude, Maria virgo with a chant-based solo from Harrold and fluidly flexible moving parts for tutti. Finally an anonymous late 13th century piece in which Alleluya psallat, a lively and vigorous setting for the three men, alternated with King's solo of Virga Jesse floruit.

There are many ways to perform medieval music, as the notation often gives us so little. But the techniques involved have resonated with many 20th and 21st century composers and the beauty of Gothic Voices programme was the way the different contemporary composers took elements from the earlier period into their own very different styles. The group's performances of the contemporary repertoire was admirably confident and stylish, whilst their performances of the medieval pieces were thankfully without a sense of prissiness and instead full of stylish vigour.

The concert was being broadcast live by BBC Radio 3, so you can hear it on their IPlayer for 30 days. It was well appreciated by the Cadogan Hall audience and we were treated to an encore, an Agnus Dei from the Old Hall Manuscript with all five singers performing together for the first time that evening.

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