Thursday 25 April 2013

Alamire at Choral at Cadogan

Vocal ensemble Alamire, under their conductor David Skinner, came to the Cadogan Hall on Wednesday 24 April 2013 to perform their programme The Tudor Dynasty: For every syllable a note as part of Choral at Cadogan. The programme explored the changes to English choral music wrought by the reformation, particularly with the attitude to text. Skinner and his singers started with the the Eton Choir book, music by Walter Lambe  and by John Sheppard which was totally melismatic, which contrasted with John Taverner's ground breaking sensitivity to the text. The reformation produced music in English, with Thomas Tallis exploring total comprehensibility. This feeling for text was reflected back in the Latin music which Tallis and Byrd started writing after Edward VI's death and the programme concluded with a group of motets from Tallis and Byrd's 1575 publication Cantiones Sacrae.

The programme opened with Walter Lambe's Nesciens mater from the Eton Choir Book, a beautifully austere piece which gloried in the long melismatic passages. It used the contrasts between the full ensemble and longer passages for small groups of solo voices in different combinations, this sectional construction with long section for a few voice is very typical of the music from the Eton Choir Book and the early Tudor period.

John Taverner, by contrast, seemed to be more interested in the text, though the composer seems to have been very influenced by Protestantism. In O Christe Jesu the sopranos of the ensemble demonstrated a lovely clear tone; the group produced a nice blended sound which also managed to be characterful. Skinner used a total of 13 singers (three sopranos and two others on each part, SATTBB, varying the numbers according to the parts).  John Sheppard's Filiae Jerusalem was definitely not about the text. Unlike the Lambe, it used the full ensemble throughout, creating one glorious procession of sound.

Taverner's Quemadmodum is a late piece, probably dating from his period in retirement in Boston in the 1530's. It survives only in instrumental form, but the text fits the piece well and it is profoundly advanced in the way Taverner responds to the text. It had quite a complex texture, rather rich with some interesting chromatic hints, and lots of lovely imitative moments.  John Sheppard's Verbum caro factum est was quite vigorously sung, again with a glorious texture. Both of Sheppard's pieces are responds, but the group sang the music through once only without the complex structure of repeats and plainchant which being a respond implies.

Part one concluded with John Taverner and Christopher Tye's O Splendor Gloriae, their collaborative votive antiphon for the Boston Guild of Corpus Christi. The work's use of combinations of solo voices contrasted with the full ensemble was familiar from the Eton Choir Book, but here the writing was far less melismatic, more concerned about text setting. The piece is a huge and taxing work, performed as part of quite a substantial programme, and there were occasional corners in the solo passages which suggested uncertainty and hinted at rather tight rehearsal schedules.

After the interval we skidded into the English Reformation, moving alarmingly (as happened in practice) from the elaborate Latin music, to the simple responsive elegance of Tallis's If ye love me and his Tunes for Archbishop Parker's Psalter. The group performed If ye love me with men's voices only, demonstrating that in many places after the reformation there would have been no boys in the choirs. The result gave the work a rather dark and interesting texture.

The concert was broadcast live on Radio 3 and at various points in the proceedings, Petroc Trelawney interviewed David Skinner who filled in a lot of the historical background to the pieces. He made the point that after spending a number of years setting English texts in a responsive and comprehensible way for the Protestant court of Edward VI, when composers returned to Latin their settings were still alert to texts and the big Latin pieces from Mary and Elizabeth's reign generally do not use melisma in the way that the early Tudors did.

It was a shame that the programme could not have been worked so that we got some of the music from Mary's reign. Instead we jumped straight to a group of motets from Tallis and Byrd's 1575 Cantiones Sacrae.

Byrd's Peccantem me quotidie was quite a substantial piece, far more textually involved than some of the earlier Latin writing and with some lovely chromatic clashes. The group's performance was elegant and expressive. But I have to confess that here, and elsewhere, I did not find them the most demonstrative of groups.

Tallis's Honor vitus et potestas was rather a showier piece than the Byrd, quite vigorously done and with some great false relations. Tallis's astonishing In ieunio et fletu was performed by just five voices (ATTBB) in a low key which exploited the second bass's dark lower register to the full extent. This remains a striking and remarkable piece, and the low key added a wonderful dark character to the textures. Tallis's Dum transisset sabbatum (sung by the full ensemble), was a more traditional but beautifully constructed piece. The ensemble brought a lovely smoothness to the complex textures.

Byrd's Emendus in melius was almost purely homophonic, with just some passing notes, demonstrating how expressive word setting could really be. And it received a lovely, and very direct, performance from the group.

Finally, Byrd's amazing Triube Domine a huge votive antiphon which was printed in three parts in Cantiones Sacrae. Here Byrd returns to the structure of the early Tudor votive antiphon, complete with passages for solo voices. But the writing is pure Byrd, and the balance of the structure favours the full ensemble passages. In the solo passages, I have to confess that my concerns about the hints of uncertainty returned. But this was a joyful piece, with a glorious conclusion, and it received a very lively and involved performance from the whole ensemble.

We were treated to a single encore, a perfect performance of Tallis's O Nata Lux.

For me there was a certain understated quality to some of the items, many were not given the most vivid of performances. But the group's performances were polished and poised, with some stunning moments. And the highly intelligent programme provided a wonderful illumination into the effects of the Reformation on English composers and their relationship to the text.

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