Monday 9 February 2015

The Psalms of David - the Cardinall's Musick at Cadogan Hall

The Cardinall's Musick
The Cardinall's Musick
Psalms of David - Gabrieli, Palestrina, Victoria, Lassus, Allegri, Gibbons, Byrd, Tomkins, Weelkes; The Cardinall's Musick, Andrew Carwood; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 5 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Vibrant performances of 16th century psalm settings from both the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions

How necessary are conductors and do they make a difference? Inevitably are thoughts went through my mind when scanning the programme for Andrew Carwood and the Cardinall's Musick's concert on 5 February 2015 at the Cadogan Hall as part of the Choral at Cadogan series. The personnel for the 10 person group included at least two Tallis Scholars plus names familiar from other ensembles; so if the personnel were similar but the conductor changed, would it make a difference.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the Cardinall's Musick was performing a programme the Psalms of David in which settings of texts based on the psalms were compared and contrasted. For the first half, the music was by 16th century composers from the European Roman Catholic tradition, whilst the second half looked at music by English composers from a similar period.

The focus of much Roman Catholic musical ceremonial at the period was on the vespers service, so the first half was built around large scale vespers psalm settings by Victoria, interspersed with smaller scale motets by Palestrina, Gabrieli and Lassus, finishing with Allegri's Miserere. For the second half the works were by English composers from a very different tradition, with anthems by Gibbons, Tomkins, Weelkes plus small scale pieces by Byrd designed for the home, a motet from the Gradualia and one of his large scale Latin works from Cantiones Sacrae.

Each piece seemed to be for a slightly different combination of forces, with the whole group only coming together for Allegri's Miserere at the end of the first half, and Byrd's Laudibus in Sanctis at the very end. This meant the concert was accompanied by an elegant dance as singers moved into their places.

Gabrieli's Jubilate Deo for double choir launched like a rocket. The eight singers in the choir delivered the ebullient work work with a big bright sound, bold colours and vibrant textures which were very different from the pure emphasis on line that we have heard with other groups in the Choral at Cadogan series. So to answer my question in the first paragraph, yes conductor's do make a difference.

Palestrina's Super flumina Babylonis reduced down to just four voices. Here the vibrancy in the individual voices was combined with a fine sense of line. The four singers were characterful and distinct, four voices interweaving with an emphasis on individual expressiveness rather than surface beauty. The performance was intense and highly concentrated.

The first of Victoria's vespers motets, Nisi Dominus, was written for double choir but sung here by SSAT/SATB rather than the usual configuration of voices. It was a grand and large scale, a multi-section piece in which Victoria varied the metre and texture, including the number of voices, as well as having the two choirs in dialogue for most of the time. Palestrina's Sicut cervus was another concentrated four-part sung by four voices, very much four individuals listening and creating a sense of vocal chamber music in their highly expressive lines.

Victoria's double choir Dixit Dominus was sung by the more usual line up of SATB/SATB. Again the choirs were mainly in dialogue, and Victoria's writing clearly expected a large scale performance in a large scale space. With a combination of vibrancy and clarity the eight singers brought the work to life. Lassus's Ad Dominum cum tribularer was for six-part choir (SSATTB), and had something of the writing of Gesualdo in the harmonic slithering, though not anywhere near as intense. It was intense work, and certainly not intended as a comfortable listen. By contrast Victoria's double-choir motet Laudate Dominum was a big, bright and sunny piece.

The final work in the first half was Allegri's Miserere, a setting of Psalm 50/51 used during Holy Week. In his spoken introduction Carwood admitted that the work as heard is a modern confection, including the famous top C. That said, the group gave a superb performance of the work which was poised and finely sung but not precious with the singers using very full voices.

In the English tradition, the settings of psalms were used differently. The elaborate settings were not used in place of psalms in the service, but instead as anthems. The first work in the second half was Orlando Gibbons' elaborate, eight-part anthem O Clap Your Hand, which was richly textured with great rhythmic liveliness. Thomas Tomkins' O pray for the peace of Jerusalem was a small scale piece, sung by four voices (SSTB). But it was still a strong performance, and full of character, with a beautifully shaped soprano lines. O God the proud are risen, also by Tomkins, moved from an opening for just one voice to a complex, richly textured eight-part work with plenty of the imitation beloved of English composers as well as some naughty harmonies.

The six-part (SSAATB) anthem O Lord in thy wrath by Orlando Gibbons was a quiet, intense piece was intersecting chromatic lines. The result was beautiful and rather moving. Thomas Weelkes' O Lord arise was a seven part anthem (SSAATBB) which was again richly textured. Though quite lively, it was in fact rather serious in tone.

English composers did not just write music for use in church, they wrote music for use at home. Byrd's three-part works setting sacred texts fall into this category. Lord in thy rage was a simple, gravely elegant work of three interweaving lines (STT). It proved surprisingly satisfying, giving scope for the interaction of voices. Sing we merrily was also written for home use, and was for the intriguing combination of three sopranos, alto and tenor. It was madrigalian in style, full of great rhythmic felicity.

Byrd's Gradualia was written for the use in the private services of the recusant Roman Catholics in England. Venite exultemus Domino, for six voices (SSATBB), was madrigalian in texture, highly rhythmic and extremely virtuosic; any service using this for performance would need a good choir. Thomas Weelkes' Latin motet Laboravi in gemitu meo was also for six voices (SSAATB). It was highly concentrated and very expressive, with long lines interweaving and passing motifs between each other. The final work was from Byrd's Cantiones Sacrae, his large scale five-part Laudibus in sanctis which was sung by all ten singers, making a vibrant sound full of rhythmic felicity.

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