Monday 30 October 2017

BREMF 2017: Plainsong to Polyphony

BREMF 2017
Leonin, Perotin, Machaut, Dunstable, Dufay, Obrecht, Isaac, Gombert, Ockeghem, Josquin, Richafort, Vaet, Fayrax, Tallis; The BREMF Consort of Voices, Lacock Scholars, Deborah Roberts, Greg Skidmore; Brighton Early Music Festival at St Bartholomew's Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 28 2017 Star rating: 4.5
A hugely ambitious evening, full of good things, taking us from the earliest chant harmonisation to Tallis' glorious 40-art motet

This year's Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) is investigating the roots of classical music, and the concert Plainsong to Polyphony at St. Bartholomew's Church, Ann Street, Brighton on Saturday 28 October 2017, took us on a hugely ambitious journey from the earliest harmonisations of chant, through the astonishing Parisian school of Leonin and Perotin, the sophisticated music by Machaut, Dufay and Dunstable, and large scale pieces by Obrecht, Isaac and Gombert. We heard a group of works inspired by the chant of the Mass for the Dead, by Ockeghem, Josquin, Jean Richafort and Vaet, and finally explored English Sarum chant with music by Robert Fayrfax, and Thomas Tallis. The culmination was the first work in the programme not based on chant, Thomas Tallis' 40-part motet, Spem in Alium.

The performers were the BREMF Consort of Voices, director Deborah Roberts, and the Lacock Scholars, director Greg Skidmore, with the performers using some complex choreography to all the programme to flow seamlessly despite each piece seemingly having a different line-up of performers. Deborah Roberts and Greg Skidmore shared the conducting honours, both groups performed on their own as well as coming together for the large scale pieces such as Nicolas Gombert's Regina caeli a 12. We started with processional plainchant followed by the earliest surviving harmonisation of plainchant from around 900, a gentle yet striking two part-piece. Two works from the Parisian school followed, the women from the BREMF Consort sang Leonin's Haec dies and men from the Lacock Scholars sang Perotin's amazing Viderunt omnes. This is taxing and ambitious music for non-professionals, and both groups started nervously before relaxing into the music. The men grew in confidence and bravura, creating some really exciting moments in the Perotin.

Next came a group of works which relied on complexities of structure more than sheer virtuosity, the 'Kyrie' from Machaut's Messe de nostre Dame, Dufay's Ave maris stella and Dunstable's Veni sancte spiritus. The Lacock Scholars gave us a gentle account of the 'Kyrie', and the BREMF Consort performance of the Dufay was similarly soft-grained and affecting. In the Dunstable, a group of Lacock Scholars and BREMF men gave us a nice sense of the way this piece has lots of different things happening simultaneously. Again a tricky work, brought off with aplomb.

Obrecht's Salve Regina was a complex piece, perhaps not ideal for performance by the 23 voices of the BREMF Consort but despite occasional unevenness, they really brought out the right textures. The first half finished with plainchant Regina caeli leading to Heinrich Isaac's setting of the text, the Lacock Scholars giving us a lovely strong upfront sound with exuberant moments. After the interval Deborah Roberts conducted the combined forces in Nicolas Gombert's 12-part Regina caeli. A magnificent piece, the singers creating a striking sound world with the repeated Alleluias at the end.

For the Requiem inspired sequence we moved from the 'Introit' to Ockeghem's Missa pro defunctis (the earliest polyphonic setting of the service to survive) to Josquin's Deploration de Johannes Ockeghem, Nymphes des bois, the 'Kyrie' from Richafort's Requiem in memoriam Josquin Desprez and Jacobus Vaet's Continuo lacrimas (elegy on the death of Clemens non Papa). The Ockeghem, sung by a group from the BREMF Consort was lovely just three parts with striking harmonies. The Lacock Scholars brought out the grave beauty and sombre tones of the Josquin and Richafort, and finally the Vaet, lovely piece of large-scale polyphony which made you wonder why it wasn't better known. Here, and in a couple of other places, Deborah Roberts and Greg Skidmore brought off the impressive feat of using two conductors to control the combined forces.

For the Sarum Chant, the troped Kyrie Orbis Factor, both groups sang in dialogue. Robert Fayrfax's large scale Magnificat Regale showed off the amazing wildness of the early Tudor English polyphony. If it was indeed sung at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, you wonder what the court of King Francois II made of it with the almost free-form melismatic polyphony and the high treble part (English trebles went higher than their Continental counterparts). Though there were moments where the music took the singers to the limit, it was lovely to hear a large scale performance with 24 members of the BREMF Consort in the polyphony and the chant sung by the Lacock Scholars, and the sopranos must be complemented for the freedom of the high treble part.

The Lacock Scholars performance of Thomas Tallis's Dum transisset Sabbatum was vibrant and expressive with the vigorous lower lines complemented by the floated soprano cantus firmus. Finally all singers (around 48 in total) joined together at the rear of the church, conducted by Greg Skidmore, for a glorious performance of Thomas Tallis's Spem in Alium.

St Bartholomew's Church is not the most comfortable venue in the world, the seats are hard and the temperature is cool, but it immense volume was ideal for this type of music and the way the singers moved between areas meant that we got to hear the polyphony from different points of view.

The programme book included a long and learned article by Deborah Roberts which gave us an admirable overview and ensured that, if we wanted to, we always knew what we were listening to and how the chant was used. This was a hugely ambitions programme, giving us a chance to hear a whole world of complex, chant-based polyphony. Perhaps not everything was perfect, but the sheer enthusiasm and engagement of the performers swept you along, .A memorable evening in all the best ways.

Elsewhere on this blog:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month