Sunday, 20 December 2015

Taverner and Tavener - ancient and modern from Fretwork at Kings Place

Fretwork (Asako Morikawa, Richard Boothby, Reiko Ichise, Richard Tunnicliffe)
Fretwork (Asako Morikawa, Richard Boothby,
Reiko Ichise, Richard Tunnicliffe)
John Taverner Missa gloria tibi trinitas, John Tavener Nipson, The Hidden Face; Iestyn Davies, Nicholas Daniel, Fretwork; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 19 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Two Tave(r)ners on viols, a 16th century mass and contemporary music for counter-tenor and viols

Fretwork's programme at Kings Place on Friday 18 December 2015 brought together music by the two John Tave(r)ners, with the Missa Gloria tibi trinitas by John Taverner (1490-1545) and Nipson and The Hidden Face by Sir John Tavener (1944-2013) with the viol ensemble being joined by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and oboist Nicholas Daniel. The concert was part of King's Place's Minimalism Unwrapped series which has run for 2015, and it contrasted two composer neither of whom are strictly minimal but whose style has important links.

Performing John Taverner's great mass with just a viol concert (Asako Morikawa, Richard Boothby, Reiko Ichise, Emily Ashton, Richard Tunnicliffe, Sam Stadlen) might not seem an immediately obvious move. But it was common to do so in the 16th century and in fact the In nomine section from Taverner's mass so gripped musicians and composers in this period that it gave rise to a distinct English form right up to Purcell who wrote a pair of In nomines.

It was strange at first hearing the mass played instrumentally, it was the same music yet transformed. With no words you relied on the musical articulation of the players, and this became a very different experience. Because of the way the viols are played with bows, though there was light and shade the ebb and flow in individual lines seemed to be less. But what we had was a wonderfully rich toned texture with the mellow, speaking tones of the viols.


Taverner's writing alternates tutti sections with smaller groups and this gave scope for some lovely individual interactions between players. There was a real sense of this being a conversation between friends, with a lovely interweaving of musical line, and harmony. Whilst much of the performance achieved a lovely meditative calm, the Agnus Dei really built to a lovely sense of climax.

The two works by Sir John Tavener were originally written for the counter-tenor Michael Chance. Nipson for countertenor and viol consort was written for Chance and Fretwork in 1998 and sets a Greek palindrome which translates as Wash the sins, not only the face though there was other text too (at least a Kyrie eleison in one section) but this was not printed in the programme. Here Fretwork was joined by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies for a work which seemed to relish the contrast between the highly lyrical, melismatic vocal line and the strongly textured sustained chords of the viols. Another interest of Tavener's in the piece were sections where viols paralleled the voice, and this brought great admiration for the technical skill and perspicacity of the players.

The Hidden Face was another work written for Michael Chance, but originally for counter-tenor, oboe and strings but here given in Fretwork's version for viols. Fretwork and Iestyn Davies were joined by oboist Nicholas Daniel, with the two soloists playing from the balcony and the deep gloom of the lighting making them almost invisible. The work sets a prayer and Tavener describes it as a prayer and to be deliberately with 'nothing personal or idiosyncratic'. The viols played what seemed like a constantly repeating sustained figure full of Tavener's parallel harmonies, and over this the two soloists exchanged melismatic phrases, developing into something truly rapturous.

The oboe part was often crucially high and I have nothing but admiration for the skill which Nicholas Daniel brought to the part and Iestyn Davies was similarly apparently effortless, singing with a lovely sense of ease.

For both Tavener pieces, I was supremely impressed with the poise and technical skill of the performances. Tavener's music leaves the performer no room for manoeuvre, every not needs to be in place. But both pieces seemed to be aiming for a kind of incantatory transcendence which simply did not move me. This was music whose skill I could admire, but which left my emotions cool though I was in a minority and the audience responded rapturously to both performances.

This was a fascinating and intriguing programme which showed the range of the viol in both Renaissance and contemporary music and in the performance of John Taverner's Missa gloria tibi trinitas let us experience something which our forbears would have taken for granted.

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