Thursday 25 October 2012

Choral at Cadogan - Tallis Scholars

Lady Margaret Beaufort
Robert Fayrfax's patron
It says a lot for the changes in concert going habits that have been wrought in the last few years or so, that the Tallis Scholars could perform a programme consisting of just two large scale polyphonic works and pretty near fill the Cadogan Hall. For the opening concert, on 25 October, of the Choral at Cadogan series, Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars performed Robert Fayrfax's Missa Tecum Principium and Thomas Tallis's Lamentations. Using just 10 singers to perform Fayrfax's large-scale five-part mass, the result was intensely serious and entirely engrossing.

Fayrfax's music is still not regularly performed by contemporary groups (and the Tallis Scholars do not seem to have recorded his music), though he was a notable and influential figure in his day. He wrote in the early Tudor period, working for Henry VII and Henry VIII as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal before any of the religious upheavals. He possessed the patronage of Henry VII's mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort who commissioned his Missa O Bone Jesu, and he led the Chapel Royal at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. He was a major influence on John Taverner and on Thomas Tallis.

Missa Tecum Principium is one of Fayrfax's six surviving masses. It is difficult to date his music, the works lack the intersection with historical events that enable us to date works by composers of the later Tudor period. But it is believed that the mass is one of Fayrfax's late works. It is a substantial piece, around 50 minutes of music encompassing Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei (English masses of the period rarely set the Kyrie). It was written well before composers or the church gave thought to clarity of text so that Fayrfax writes on a massive scale using long melismatic sections.

Fayrfax constructs large stretches of long melodic development around the cantus firmus, this is less about harmony and counterpoint and more about exploring the extremes of what could be done to let the melodies interact and build. The result was mesmerising and hypnotic, you could easily lose track of quite what section of the work you were in, the sheer delight of the music took over.

The Tallis Scholars performed the work with just two singer per part, with two tenor parts. The results were confident and elegant, the singers making a beautifully blended sound, shaping Fayrfax's lines. Fayrfax rarely uses all of the parts, instead he is content to use a small sub-group and to contrast different voices. The singers were admirable in the way that they preserved poise and flexibility over the long stretches of music. Fayrfax can be tiring to sing, I know from experience, but the singers kept up to the very end with only the slightest hint of the long, complexity of the music.

At key moments in the liturgical drama Fayrfax used changes of rhythm and metre to signify the change to listeners. This was especially notable in the Credo where the key moments were clearly signalled. The Sanctus and Benedictus were surprisingly gentle and certainly not as showy as some polyphonic settings. (Groups always perform the Sanctus and Benedictus as one single whole, though the present Tridentine Rite prescribes that the two were performed separately with the consecration in the middle.) The ending of the mass, the Dona nobis pacem section of the Agnus Dei was particularly notable and hypnotic as Fayrfax used all five voices, each circling round the other egging each other on in a seemingly endless stream of melody.

With Fayrfax's mass constructed on such leisurely terms, I began to wonder what on earth the original sung services must have been like. Modern day sung masses using the Tridentine Rite can last 75 minutes or more even using a rather compact mass setting. Something like the Fayrfax must have made the services extremely long, and very leisurely. Or did the priests do what later generations would do, and perform the mass whilst the music was going on to save time? If the mass was written for performance in the King's chapel, did the King simply conduct his business whilst the 'lovely music' went on, only paying attention to the priests at the salient moments when the bells in the sanctuary rang? Whatever happened, the results must have been substantial, with the combination of plainchant and Fayrfax giving the event a very contemplative feel.

Peter Phillips started the programme with John Taverner's Leroy Kyrie, there then followed the four sections of Fayrfax's mass (Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus dei), divided up so that the Gloria was followed by Tallis's Lamentations I, the Credo by the interval and the Sanctus followed by Tallis's Lamentations II. The results made for a highly satisfying programme, giving due weight to the Fayrfax without forcing us to listen to it continuously without a break in a way that the composer probably never imagined. All that I thought was missing was a little bit of chant, to clear the palate so to speak.

For both sets of the Tallis Lamentations the singers re-configured slightly; the top part still sung by the two sopranos, but the next two parts each sung by an alto and a tenor, a response to the fact that the work's tessitura is quite close. Tallis does not seem to have written Lamentations for liturgical use and the suggestion is that it may have been intended for private performance by recusant Catholics which would mean that the work's relatively narrow compass would facilitate performance in a variety of keys to suit whoever was available (including having women on the top line).

Tallis's settings of the Hebrew letters which prefix each section are full of rich polyphonic writing which was clearly enjoyed by the singers. The actual verses were set in a more direct manner and here Phillips and the singers used a far more direct, muscular manner which brought out the text and conveyed the stylistic differences with the Fayrfax.

The concert was extremely well received by the large audience, and the Tallis Scholars CD's were eagerly snapped up at the interval; a testament to how this group has changed the way audiences view music from this period. The Tallis Scholars celebrate their 40th anniversary next year. They will be returning to Cadogan Hall with a celebratory concert, but also performing Tallis's Spem in Alium at St. Paul's Cathedral.

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