Thursday 5 February 2015

Plainsong vespers for Henry VI

Stephen Cleobury and the choir of King's College, Cambridge
Stephen Cleobury and the choir of
King's College, Cambridge
Plainsong Vespers, plus music from the Eton Choirbook and the Old Hall manuscript;
Choir of King's College, Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury; Kings Place Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 04 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Plainchant and early English polyphony in a glorious reconstruction of a Vespers from the 1500's

Kings Place's Minimalism Unwrapped series has started by casting its net widely, exploring varieties of minimalism in music. Stephen Cleobury and the choir of King's College, Cambridge started at the very beginning in their concert at King's Place on Wednesday 4 February 2015. In Plainchant Vespers for Henry VI they performed a reconstruction of a vespers service in honour of Henry VI, the college's founder. This chimes in with 2015 being the 500th anniversary of the completion of building the chapel. In the first half of the concert they performed the service of vespers according to the Sarum rite, incorporating the Ave Maris Stella and Magnificat secundi toni by John Dunstable (c1390 - 1459). Vespers was book-ended by a pair of Marian motets, Ave Maria by Robert Parsons (c1535 to c1571/2), and Salve Regina by Robert Hacomplaynt (c1455/56 - 1526). In the second half, we had another Marian motet, Videte Miraculum by Thomas Tallis (c1505 - 1585) and a mass which mixed plainchant with music from the Old Hall Manuscript including Beata Dei genetrix by Thomas Damett (c1389/90 - c1436/37),  Nesciens mater by Bittering (fl.c. 1410), Sanctus by Roy Henry (fl.c.1410) and Ave Regina caelorum by Leonel Power (c1370 to 1386 - 1445). And the concert concluded with the Magnificat Regale by Robert Fayrfax (1464 - 1521) from the Eton Choir Book.

Eton Choirbook
Eton Choirbook
Henry VI founded both King's College, Cambridge (in 1441), and Eton College (in 1440), with the fabric of the Chapel being completed in 1515. So Stephen Cleobury's programme drew not only on plainchant from the Sarum Rite (the use of Salisbury, which was common in England at the time), but took music from the Old Hall manuscript (c1420) and the Eton Choirbook (c1500) which are two of the most important sources for English sacred music of the period. The Old Hall manuscript is an important collection of English sacred music from late 14th and early 15th centuries which ended up at St Edmund's College in Old Hall Green, Herts. (Hence its name). Compiled later, the Eton Choirbook was specifically compiled for use at Eton where the choir used it to sing Marian motets.

It is relatively rare to come across so much music from this period in a single concert, and a complete joy to find it performed in its correct context amidst a structure of plainchant. Though plainchant can be minimal, at its simplest just a reciting note with a cadence at the end of the phrase, services combined complexity with simplicity. In the vespers service the psalms were simply chanted with the emphasis being on the regularity of the text on the reciting note punctuated by cadences. But the antiphons to the psalms demonstrated that all plainchant was not simple, here though we had just a single line it was highly elaborate. And of course, when we moved to polyphony it was set off beautifully by the plainchant.

Stephen Cleobury conducted the full choir of King's College, Cambridge with 18 boys and 16 choral scholars. The boys sang in the large-scale works which began and ended each half, whilst the choral scholars alone were responsible for the vespers and the mass sequences.

Robert Parson's Ave Maria is familiar and provided a welcome starting point, introducing us to an unfamiliar world via an old friend. Removed from the famous acoustic of the chapel, the choir's sound preserved its beauty and their performance emphasised the sense of line in the music and throughout the evening had great clarity. The boys left after the Parsons and we commenced the vespers. Vespers services consist of a sequence of psalms, a reading, a hymn and a concluding magnificat. Each psalm and the magnificat has an antiphon, and whilst the psalms in the service are relatively unchanging, the antiphons and the responsory to the reading change according to the feast. It is here that the music is more elaborate music, and we had vespers for the Blessed Virgin Mary who is the chapel's co-patron so the music for the antiphons was elaborate indeed.

Five psalms, simply chanted by all the men with emphasis on the text and the reciting note with the cadences rarely varying, were offset by highly elaborate antiphons fluidly sung by a small chant group. The result was hypnotic and highly expressive. The psalm chanting did not have the icy perfection that you can get in some performances, instead there was a fallibility (occasional wrinkles in the ensemble), a sense of vibrant liveliness and a feeling that this was something the choir did regularly (though they probably rarely sing quite as much plainchant in a single go). Dunstable's hymn, Ave Maris Stella alternated chant and polpyphony (as was the way). Dunstable's polyphony combined relatively slow moving parts with line which were highly elaborated. This, and the penchant for open fourths, gave the music a very distinctive, rather robust timbre and the young men were clearly relishing some of the more elaborate ornamental detailing in Dunstable's lines.

Dunstable's Magnificat was polyphony throughout but here he alternated sections for full choir with solo sections for alto and tenor duet. The music for the soloists was highly elaborated, full of vocal ornaments and the two choral scholars acquitted themselves well. And here also, in the tutti sections Dunstable would ornament relatively simply polyphony by giving one line (often the top one) a highly elaborate variation.

The boys returned for the final item in the first half, the Salve Regina by Robert Hacomplaynt (a provost of of Kng's from 1509 to 1528) from the Eton Choirbook. Here it was the boys who got the highly elaborate top line, and they sang the ornamented vocal line with a nice naturalness. Like the Dunstable, Hacomplaynt's Salve Regina alternated tutti sections with sections for just two or three vocal lines, clearly relishing the contrast. The text is a longer version of the one familiar today so that for the final lines, each of the phrases 'O dulcis', 'O clemens', 'O pia' was followed by a long trope and here Hacompaynt articulated this beautifully by having 'O dulcis', 'O clemens', 'O pia' sung by tutti but the tropes sung by a fewer lines.

The second half opened with Thomas Tallis's responsory Videte Miraculum sung by the whole choir. Familiar, but welcome, and receiving a performance notable for the warm tone of the voice and the sense of a gentle unfolding of a complex tapestry.

The mass sequence, sung just by the choral scholars, commenced with Thomas Danett's Beata Dei genitrix. In this sequence the balance of chant and polyphony was different, with greater emphasis on polyphony. We had a plainsong Kyrie and Sanctus (both quite elaborate) and the remainder of the mass sequence including the Agnus Dei were polyphonic, taken from the Old Hall manuscript. Like the Dunstable in the first half, these combined relatively simply polyphonic textures with highly ornamented lines and a frequent use of open fourths. It was a style which benefited from being offset by a single line of chant.

The evening ended with the boys returning to the stage, and the entire choir performed Robert Fayrfax's Magnificat Regale. The piece is very substantial, around 12 minutes in length, and made a glorious conclusion to the concert. Fayrfax alternated chant with polyphony, sometimes using all the voices and sometimes two or three in the polyphonic sections. A later generation than Dunstable, Fayrfax's music is notable for its use of multiple ornamented vocal lines so that the entire piece is a complex woven tapestry. Words become unimportant as syllables are extended to long melismas. It is a style that I enjoy enormously and I loved hearing it sung by a larger group of singers (rather than a vocal consort of 8 or 10) with boys on the top line.

Throughout the concert, Stephen Cleobury conducted with restrained poise, allowing the music to unfold gradually and relatively unhurriedly. But though he seemed relaxed, you sensed that after 30 years in charge of the choir he was in control and achieving the effect he wanted.
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