Monday 22 June 2015

Robert Fayrfax at the Wigmore Hall

The Cardinall's Musick
Robert Fayrfax, John Tavener, Richard Davy, John Merbecke, William Cornysh, Thomas Tallis; The Cardinall's Musick, Andrew Carwood; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 20 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Vibrant conclusion to the Andrew Carwood's series devoted to the music of Robert Fayrfax

Andrew Carwood and the Cardinall's Musick finished their short series of concerts at the Wigmore Hall celebrating the music of Robert Fairfax on Saturday 20 June 2015 with a look at the music of Fairfax and his contemporaries. The subtext of the concert was the influence of Cardinal Wolsey, one of the great figures of the age. Robert Fairfax's younger contemporary, John Tavener was the first Informator Choristarum at Wolsey's new Cardinal College in Oxford, whilst Richard Davy was Informator Choristarum at Magdalen College in Oxford when Wolsey was attached to the college. We heard two of Robert Fairfax's major pieces, the Agnus Dei from his late, large-scale Missa tecum principium and Maria plena virtute plus one of his secular pieces, Alas for lak of her presens, alongside John Tavener's O Wilhelme pastor bone, Sospitate dedit aegros and Mater Christi sanctissima, Richard Davy's Ah blessed Jesu how fortuned this, and music by three of Fairfax's younger contemporaries John Merbecke's A virgin and mother, William Corynsh the Younger's Woefully arrayed and Thomas Tallis's Euge caeli porta.

The Cardinall's Music comprised ten singers, two sopranos, two altos (one man and one woman), two tenors, two baritones and two basses, reflecting the predominant rich layout of the larger scale music of this period. Andrew Carwood introduced the items, combining history and musicology with great wit, managing to convey a remarkable amount in a short time and in a way which was both informative and amusing.

The recital opened with John Tavener's antiphon O Wilhelme pastor bone written for Cardinal Wolsey's Cardinal College. The text combines a dedication to St William of York with a prayer for the Cardinal himself. The ten singers made a lovely direct, full sound with some fluid tempos. The piece was more straightforward than some Tavener, with few of the longer melismatic passages. Richard Davy's Ah blessed Jesu how fortunate this is one of the first meditations on Christ's suffering to be produced in English and it may have formed a model for the William Cornysh piece also included in the programme. It was quite a long motet. Sung by six voices in two three part choirs (SAT.SAT), the six individual voices were all quite strongly characterised, but the singers listened and blended well creating a vibrant whole with some lovely duet and trio passages. John Tavener's Sospitati dedit aegros incorporated the original plainchant in the form of a melismatic O, sung by the basses at the end of each line. Tavener's writing varied between full ensemble and smaller groups, and here we did get some quite spectacular melismatic writing.

The first half finished with Robert Fayrfax's Agnus Dei from his Missa Tecum principium which is his most sophisticated mass setting. The Agnus Dei lasts some 10 minutes and was full of slow moving melismatic passages, so that the result achieved a hypnotic air, though there were moments of drama too.

We started part two with John Tavener's large scale antiphon Mater Christi sanctissimi which, despite the title, is in fact a meditation on the Eucharist. Though still using melisma, this was a far more word based work with the sense of the text coming through, perhaps necessary in a piece which moved away from traditional Marian devotion to the rather newer Eucharistic devotions. In fact, it was a remarkably lively piece and very strongly characterised. John Merbecke was a younger contemporary and we heard his A Virgin and mother,  which was originally from a longer Latin piece but which survives in an English version. A small, but lovely, fluid trio for Alto, Tenor and Bass. William Cornysh's four-part Woefully Arrayed started simply by building from just a tenor solo, but it developed into a complex web of polyphony but again Cornysh managed to preserve a sense of the words coming over. Thomas Tallis's Euge caeli porta complete the group of works by younger contemporaries of Fairfax. Here we could admire the effortless way Tallis created a quite complex piece of polyphony.

Robert Fayrfax's Alas for lak of her presens is one of five of his secular pieces to survive. Sung by three voices (Soprano, Tenor and Bass) the three part-texture gave clarity so that the words were clearly apparent, but Fairfax brings melismatic passages into the mix too!

Finally his large scale antiphon Mari plena virtute, lasting around 15 minutes and again, despite the work's name, it was a meditation on the Passion. Fairfax used the familiar mixture of duets and trios, contrasting with tutti sections and with many elaborate melismatic passages but with a great sense of character and moments of rather daring harmony, all rising to a gloriously triumphant conclusion.

Throughout the concert the singers gave a vibrant and strong performance, not at all prissy but still precise and expressive. This was a very virile performance and gave an idea of the music's robust strength and finesse.

There is a chance to hear the Cardinall's Musick on Friday 26 June 2015, at the church of St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, further details from the Cardinall's Musick website.

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