Monday 9 December 2013

Chapelle du Roi - Christmas at the Chapel Royal

Chapelle du Roi
Having explored ancient and modern settings of the same texts in their previous Christmas concert, Alistair Dixon and Chapelle du Roi returned to their core repertoire for their 2013 Christmas concert. Christmas at the Chapel Royal at St John's Smith Square on 7 December 2013 saw the group performing Thomas Tallis's Missa Puer Natus Est Nobis as the centre piece of the concert. Based on the Christmas plainchant, Puer Natus Est Nobis (A boy is born to us), the mass referred not only to the nativity of Christ but to the possibility that the newly married Queen Mary I (Mary Tudor) was pregnant. The ensemble surrounded the mass with music by Tallis and his contemporaries, William Mundy, John Sheppard and William Byrd, many of the pieces with Christmas links.

Philip of Spain and Mary Tudor
Philip of Spain and Mary Tudor
The concert started with the group off stage, the men singing the chant Puer Natus est Nobis (the introit for the third mass for Christmas) which lead straight into the Gloria from Tallis's Missa Puer Natus Est Nobis. This survives incomplete and it was only after musicological research in the 1960's that the Gloria restored to a performable state (the Credo is still in fragmentary form). Musicologists can be reasonable certain that Tallis wrote the mass for Christmas 1554, because its unusual seven part layout (SSAATBB, with the tenors singing the cantus firmus based on the chant) and the rather narrow compass of the vocal parts suggests the participation of the Spanish chapel choir which had travelled to England with Prince Philip of Spain (Queen Mary's husband) and participated in Chapel Royal services (the Spanish chapel choir did not use high treble parts the way that the English did).

The result of the increase in parts and the narrowing of the vocal range is to give the mass a lovely rich texture. Dixon kept the speeds steady, but encouraged a vivid performance from the singers, with good projection of the words. The eight voices of Chapelle du Roi form a nicely vibrant group, an ensemble of eight voices without too much homogenisation, but a nice compromise between blend and personality.

Thomas Tallis
Thomas Tallis
Tallis's Blessed are those that be undefiled survives only in a number of late sources, but the structure of the piece and the fact that the word setting is below Tallis's usual standard, suggests to musicologists that the piece was originally a setting of the Latin text Beati Immaculati and it was this version which was performed by the Chapelle du Roi. Tallis alternates high and low voices in the verses to rather good effect. The piece is not as massive or as elaborate as some of Tallis's motets but it was beautifully crafted. The group gave a lovely confident and verbally stimulating performance, sounding as if they really mean it.

They followed this with William Mundy's setting of the same words, one of his eight surviving psalm settings. It was full of melodic felicity, rather low key but smoothly flowing and finely shaped. The performance was very moving with Dixon and the ensemble giving a lovely natural feel to pacing and phrasing.

John Sheppard's I give you a new commandment dates from the reign of Edward VI when musicians at the Chapel Royal were producing simpler, more direct settings. Sheppard does not set the text homophonically, but the words were always very clear. Sung by the four lower voices of the group, the result was a lovely smooth dark textured performance, nicely understated but the projection of the words was a bit lacking.

Sheppard's Verbum Caro by contrast is a large scale Latin setting of the respond for Matins on Christmas Day. Sheppard uses six voices with the very high treble part which is his signature in these Latin responds. The two sopranos of Chapelle du Roi sang the high treble part with a beautiful even tone and lovely balance. Sheppard writes richly textured music with a great sense of space, in one long continuous complex texture which Dixon kept flowing admirably.

Tallis's Suscipe Quaeso was written for one of the other major events of 1554, the absolution of England when the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Pole, absolved England from schism. Again the seven-voice texture and the scoring suggests the participation of the Spanish chapel. The work's opening builds to a full texture from a single line, and throughout Tallis alternates sections for small groups with full voiced sections. Tallis gives the music a rather rich texture, in a very long breathed structure. Chapelle du Roi gave quite a controlled, contained performance, with finely shaped phrases and nicely flowing. The result was very involving.

The second half started with two Christmas pieces from William Byrd's Gradualia. Hodie Christus Natus Est had a lively, imitative texture with some lovely pointings of the rhythms. In Rorate Coeli (the introit for the last Sunday before Christmas) the group made a lovely strong sound, and there was a nice swing to the lively rhythms.

Sheppard's Reges Tharsis sets the respond for Matins on the feast of the Epiphany. Again with a high treble part and using a six-part texture the result is gloriously rich and spacious, finely rendered by Chapelle du Roi. Videte Miraculum is a respond for the Vespers on the Feast of the Purification (Candlemas) here set by Thomas Tallis. Tallis also uses six voice parts, to give a lovely spacious effect. There was a beautiful hypnotic quality to the ensembles performances of the imitative sections. Overall a quite gentle performance, with a fine sense of individual voices coming to prominence and then disappearing into the texture again.

The Agnus Dei from Tallis's Missa Puer Natus est Nobis was given a beautifully poised performance. Dixon kept the richly developed textures flowing nicely and there was again an hypnotic feel to the miserere nobis and dona nobis pacem.

The group concluded with another of Tallis's masterpieces, his Te Deum  for Meanes. Though the work seems akin to the pieces Tallis wrote later in his career, the fact that he uses the text of Henry VIII's Primer of 1545 (the text of the Te Deum was revised slightly in the 1552 revision of the Prayerbook). Which suggests that Tallis wrote the work in the period 1547-1553 under Edward VI. Tallis uses a double choir (two choirs of SAATB) to create a remarkably grand work, in which the rather short-winded nature of the text is disguised by the way that Tallis writes antiphonally for the two choirs thus creating a large scale structure. Chapelle du Roi gave a poised, well balance performance with good words, and a lovely feeling of interaction between the two choirs.

Chapelle du Roi celebrates its 20th anniversary next year, and concerts at St John's Smith Square include a Tenebrae service by Candlelight and a Christmas concert which will include a number of anniversary commissions.

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