Monday, 14 December 2015

Chapelle du Roi - The Marriage of England and Spain

Alistair Dixon and Chapelle du Roi Photo Andrea Liu (Flickr)
Alistair Dixon and Chapelle du Roi
Photo Andrea Liu (Flickr)
Tallis, Mundy, Hedley, de Monte, Byrd , Victoria, Guerrero; Chapelle du Roi, Alistair Dixon; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 12 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Interweaving Spanish and English music from the late 16th century, along with a modern premiere

Alistair Dixon and Chapelle du Roi's contribution to the Christmas Festival at St John's Smith Square on Saturday 12 December 2015 was a programme of late 16th century English and Spanish sacred music entitled The Marriage of England and Spain. Themed around the marriage of Queen Mary Tudor to Philip of Spain, the programme included music written by Tallis for the joint forces of the English Chapel Royal and the Spanish Capella Flamanca along with other music which showed the continental, notably Spanish, influences on English music with pieces by Tallis, Mundy, de Monte, Byrd, Victoria and Guerrero. There was also a performance of Edward Hedley's motet for the Holy Innocents, Terreum sitiens regnum, which was reconstructed by Nick Sandon from the Peterhouse Partbooks and was receiving its probable first modern performance.

The programme started with a lively and rhythmic account of the medieval carol Gaudete, Gaudete sung as the choir walked in.

Next came Thomas Tallis's Beati immaculati, a motet which survives in a later version with an English text but the English word setting is particularly infelicitous and aspects of the scoring suggest it started as a Latin piece. It certainly shows the influence of continental models in the structure of the motet. It was sung with a vibrant sense of line by the eight members of Chapelle du Roi, along with felicitous attention to rhythmic detail which enlivened the piece. William Mundy's Adolescentulus sum ego, which sets verses from the same psalm (119) as the Tallis, belongs to the continuing tradition of composers in Elizabethan England writing Latin texted psalm motets which were not strictly liturgical. Mundy's piece was full of Tallis-like imitation and lovely false relations. The singers brought out a nice sense of individuality in the lines rather than being over blended.


Two further carols came next, both sung without a conductor. The anonymous Angelus ad Virginem, one of the earliest surviving carols, was nicely perky with the verses sung by solo singers. There is no Rose is also anonymous, though there is a hint it may be by John Dunstable, was sung by the three upper voices (soprano, alto and tenor), with the verses sung first as a duet by different pairs of solo singers. It was a nicely flowing performance with some nice rhythmic detail.

Terrenum sitiens regnum is the only work attributed to Edward Hedley. It comes from the Peterhouse Partbooks (where it is attributed to 'Edward') and as one of the partbooks is missing, all the pieces have to be reconstructed. Here the work was done by Nick Sandon. The subject is unusual, the Massacre of the Holy Innocents, and in form the refrain-like structure makes the piece not dissimilar to a respond (or even a carol). It was a rich and sober work, with some lovely complexity in the writing. The ensemble sang with a vibrant sense of line, bringing out the contrasts between the rich tutti sections and the passages written for smaller groups. I was particularly struck by one three part passage which emphasised the difference between the high sopranos and low basses. The words Nil agis, infelix (Wretched, you achieve nothing) generated a lovely long melisma. Overall it was a soberly serious piece, with no sense of word painting relating to the massacre, yet rather wonderful too.

The composer Philippe de Monte came to England as part of the Capella Flamanca which accompanied Philip of Spain and Philippe de Monte seems to have remained in contact as he and William Byrd exchanged motets in 1583. (Byrd would only have been a teenager in the 1550's when the Capella Flamanca was in England, but his father was a gentleman of the Chapel Royal at the time). Commiserating with each other on Queen Elizabeth's suppression of the Catholics in England, in 1583 both composers set different verses from Psalm 137, By the waters of Bablyon.  De Monte's setting, Super fluminis Babylonis, for double choir, was given a poised and quite vibrant performance with a lovely sense of the eight voices interacting. William Byrd's Quomodo cantabimus had quite a busy polyphonic texture with a sense of individual lines rising and falling the mix.

Thomas Tallis's Discomfit them O Lord sets a polemical text which seems to have been written in response to the Spanish Armada. Tallis's setting had a grave beauty to it, with a wonderful texture but still with clarity to the words.

Next came a group of Spanish motets themed on Advent and Christmas. The ensemble brought a controlled beauty to Victoria's motet O magnum mysterium, giving it just the right sense of wonder. The rich polyphony of Guerrero's Alma redemptoris Mater was sung quite gently, flowing effortlessly to make something rather lovely. Victoria's eight-voice Alma redemptoris Mater was quite intimate, with a gentle interweaving of lines, though there were dramatic moments too and a lovely bass-rich ending. We also heard the Kyrie from Victoria's parody mass based on the motet, Missa Alma redemptoris Mater which had a sober beauty to it.

Finally the group performed the Agnus Dei from Thomas Tallis's Missa puer natus est which was probably written for Christmas 1554 when, after Philip's marriage to Queen Mary, the court expected a child from the marriage. Full of rich, beautifully placed polyphony, the continuous texture included a lovely ebb and flow of individual lines and the pieces ended on a seemingly endless circular motion for Dona nobis pacem, quite magical.

This was an intelligently and intriguingly programmed concert exploring the interactions between Spanish and English music with the premiere of Nick Sandon's edition of Edward Hedley's motet as its centre piece. A couple of slight hiccups suggested the shortage of rehearsal time common to such concerts, but overall there was nothing to dim our enjoyment and the group sang with a lovely sense of ensemble and vibrant musical line.

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