Thursday 22 November 2012

The Cardinall's Musick at Wimbledon Music Festival

Andrew Carwood and his ensemble, the Cardinall's Musick, brought their programme Il Siglio D'Oro: Muisc of Spain's Golden Age to St Paul's Church, SW19 as part of the Wimbledon Music Festival on Wednesday 21 November. Directed by Carwood, who provided illuminating and entertaining spoken introductions to the programme, the eight singers performed music by Guerrero, Morales, Esquivel, Victoria, Esquivel and Lobo, all of it dedicated in some way to the Virgin Mary. In one of his introductions Carwood explained that the Western Church, unlike the Orthodox Church, had no female personification in its representation of God. So at a time when God was often a man of war, it was to the Virgin that people turned for the feminine virtues. And this is reflected in the amazing flowering of music dedicated to her at the period.

The group started with Surge Propera by one of the most respected composers of the period, Francisco Guerrero. A glorious piece, full of rich polyphony, strongly sung and highly characterised. This was followed by a six-part Regina caeli, laetare by Morales who was Guerroro's teacher. This was richly dense polyphony, its intensity achieving a sort of rapture by the end. Dulcissima Maria by Esquivel was a rather more gentle affair, the four voices moving through the polyphony at a slower rate and achieving great beauty.

On an entirely different scale was Victoria's eight-part Alma Redemptoris Mater, with its lovely opening building from a single line. Here we heard the Spanish style filtered through a little Roman polish, with Victoria's polyphony being smoother and rather less dense but nonetheless still intense and building to a superb climax.

Victoria's Sancta Maria succerre miseris was a smaller scale piece, just four voices in a simple direct prayer, the music with Victoria's characteristic open texture to the harmonies. Esquivel's Exaltata est sancta Dei genitrix, written for the Assumption of the Virgin, was short and vigorous. It acted as a neat prelude to the final item in part one, Guerrero's Ave virgo sanctissima, one of his best known pieces given an intense performance.

The group sang one to a part, changing the line-up as needed between pieces. They sang with strong, vibrant voices as this repertoire demands. And the church's lively acoustic responded, creating a glorious wall of sound. One or two of the opening pieces had occasional hesitations and awkwardnesses which suggested a shortness of rehearsal time, but the group soon settled down.

What took far longer to settle down was the group's getting used to the acoustic. Singing in a strange church can be an odd affair, as the results are unpredictable; what you hear as a singer not being what the audience hears. For most of the first half, I felt that the balance of the voices in the group was not quite satisfactory, with the sopranos being a little too dominant. This was something which gradually adjusted and the final item in the entire programme was simply glorious with no quibbles. This, it turns, out, was a highly personal view as my companion felt that the balance was worse than I did, and a friend sitting near could hear no problems at all. Just showing that the art of getting this right in such a lively acoustic is a tricky one, perhaps we could have been encouraged to perambulate during one of the pieces.

The group sings this music with strongly characterised voices, with each line clearly felt. The performance did not always have that perfect surface beauty which some groups bring to this repertoire, instead Carwood encouraged his singers to deliver the sort of passion and intensity with which it was probably first performed.

The second half opened with another Victoria piece for double choir, the Ave Maria. This started with the two choirs echoing each other but built into something big and vibrant. The balance here had improved over the first half, but I felt that the altos were underpowered compared to the surrounding voices.

A pair of Guerrero motets followed, the four-part Quae est ista and the five-part (SSATB) Trahe me post te.  The first started from an austere opening to generate a rich texture and the second was a pretty rich mix throughout. The performances brought out the spicy, highly flavoured nature of this music which is a world away from the coolly beautiful Italian polyphony.

A second setting of the Sancta Maria, succere miseris, this time by Morales, a vibrant setting which was full of open textures with the polyphony not so dense as in other pieces. Alonso Lobo's Ave Maria was something of a stunt as all the parts are written in canon, all eight of them; the result doesn't sound awkward but rather glorious. Though there was a feeling that, because of the construction the piece did not really go anywhere.

The final two works were Victoria's five part (SSATB) Gaude Virgo Maria and Guerrero's eight-part Regina Caeli. Both were entirely glorious, with the singers now fully at home and giving us a full throttle performance of this vibrant, exciting and passionate music.

The programme was well received and there was one encore, all eight singers performing Victoria's four-part Ave Maria, simple but beautiful.

This was a very rich programme, with strongly intense music and I did wonder whether a little contrast might have been in order. It would have been nice to have had a couple of items without the sopranos and some plainchant, just to cleanse the palate.

As I have said, Carwood provided entertaining spoken  introductions which introduced the music, demonstrated its construction with the frequent use of canons and even explained the cult of the Virgin in the 16th century church. These also helped to give the evening a more personal feel, which is always very welcome.

It was a great pleasure to hear a complete evening of music from these great composers, in performances which were so vibrantly alive. Ultimately the quibbles I had could not detract from what was some very fine singing indeed.
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