Tuesday 20 December 2011

Chapelle du Roi at St. Johns Smith Square

On Saturday, St. John's Smith Square launched their annual Christmas Festival and as usual the eagerly awaited first concert of the series was an appearance by Chapelle du Roi under their conductor Alistair Dixon. This year Dixon offered a programme entitled Meet the Tudors which mixed old favourites with new items in a nice mix highlighting the full range of Tudor polyphony from early to late.

The programme opened with the Sarum chant, A solis ortus cardine used as a processional; this Latin hymn was used at Lauds during the Christmas season. It was followed by a characterful and surprisingly lively account of William Byrd's setting of Rorate Coeli, the introit for mass on the last Sunday of Advent.

The centrepiece of the first half was a performance of Robert Fayrfax's monumental Magnificat Regale from the Eton Choir book. This is a big work and possibly quite a stretch for just 8 singers. Certainly the performance went awry in a couple of places. Though Dixon was working with a significantly changed line-up from last year and the group may need a little more running in. But there were some fine things in the performance as well, with strongly characterised solo singing, a richly expressive soprano line and a very fine low bass.

The first half was completed by John Sheppard's respond Verbum caro, Tallis's Beati Immaculati and Suscipe Quaeso. The Sheppard offered some rich textures and a nice clear line in the high soprano part. Beati Immaculati was a speculative reconstruction by Dixon, based on the premise that Tallis's Blessed are those that be underfiled is an English contrafactum of an early Latin motets. Dixon's arguments in the programme notes were convincing and the group gave a poised and vivid performance. Suscipe Quaeso was probably written for the ceremony of the Absolution of England by Cardinal Pole in 1554, an event which Dixon and his group have explored in previous Christmas concerts. Tallis wrote for 7 part choir and offered some amazingly richly textured polyphony.

The problems in the Fayrfax seemed to have disturbed the singers equilibrium and these concluding items in the first half did not have the poise and brilliance that we have come to expect in this group.

Luckily things improved after the interval and the items in the second half showed the group to be back on top form.

They opened with a pair of English settings, written during the Edwardine protestant renaissance; Tallis's If ye love me and Sheppard's I give you a new commandment. The Tallis was sung by four voices, AATB, a quite convincing allocation of parts and the Shepperd was also sung by a smaller group, this time TTBB, giving us a lovely chocolatey sound. But in neither piece did the singers make anything like enough of the words; after all, under Edward VI, composers like Tallis and Sheppard were deliberately writing settings of English which were as comprehensible as possible, in line with the doctrines promoted by Edward and his advisors.

Next followed Tallis's respond Videte Miraculum, with its six-part texture giving us a further example of how Tallis could create beautifully rich textures. More Tallis followed in the form of his Te Deum for Meanes, a work which was probably written during the Edwardine period (based on the particular version of the text used). It is an astonishing work, set for two 5-part choirs; Tallis manages to give the work breadth and grandeur even though the text itself is rather choppy and list-like. Dixon cunningly performed the piece with just 8 singers by having the two hard working counter-tenors singing in both choirs; quite a brilliant piece of performance which came of superbly.

As a closing Marian motet we moved to Spain, for Victoria's lovely Alma Redemptoris Mater, in his setting of 8 voices.

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