Sunday 11 November 2018

Reformation Remainers: Musicians, zealots and loyalists in Tudor England

St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton
St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton
Tavener, Tallis, Byrd; BREMF Consort of Voices, Deborah Roberts; Brighton Early Music Festival at St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 November 2018
A hugel ambitious programme full of striking polyphony taking England from pre-Reformation Catholicism and post-Reformation Anglicanism

This year's Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) has Europe as its theme, 700 years of music from 17 European countries. Deborah Roberts and the BREMF Consort of Voices brought out the striking parallels between the English Reformation and BREXIT in their concert Reformation Remainers: Musicians, zealots and loyalists in Tudor England at St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton on Saturday 10 November 2018.

Deborah Roberts' lucid and informative programme note summarized the musical and political events which took Britain from King Henry VIII's Roman Catholic kingdom to Queen Elizabeth I's non-aligned Protestant kingdom, whilst bringing the striking parallels to the present BREXIT process. The programme, started with English church music in pre-Reformation England under King Henry VIII, with Sarum chant, John Tavener's O Wilhelme pastor bone, Leroy Kyrie, the 'Sanctus' from Missa Corona Spinea, and Quemadmodum, and Thomas Tallis' early Salve intemerata virgo. For the second half, we had music after the break with Rome. Musical austerity, but a Catholice writes beautiful music for the new Anglican rite gave us three of Tallis' psalms from Archbishop Parker's Psalter and the anthem Verily I say unto you. Catholic remainers: coded messages in music gave us music written by Britains two major Catholic composers who remained in England and whose music discreetly referenced the sufferings of proscribed Catholics by analogy with the Israelites, with Tallis' The Lamentations of Jeremiah, Parts I & II, and When shall my sorowful sighing slack,  and William Byrd's Vigilate and Ne irascaris Domine. And finally Affirming what is universal: The Trinity with Byrd's Tribue Domine.

The BREMF Consort of Voices is a non-professional group made up of amateurs and students, here fielding 26 singers in a hugely ambitious programme which included two very substantial motets (Tallis' Salve intemerata virgo lasts around 15 minutes and Byrd's Tribue Domine is not that far behind), not to mention Tavener's challenging polyphony. And the end result was a huge achievement, not withstanding the fact that the programme felt slightly too long. What came over was a real sense of achievement, when the singers relaxed into the music and gave us some superbly crafted polyphony. This did not have the polished perfection of a group like the Tallis Scholars, perhaps it was more fallible but it was more personal and wonderfully characterful, and by using a larger group of non-professional voices Deborah Roberts drew some very different sound qualities into the music. Though there were the inevitable wobbles, the overall sound was quite soft grained with, at its best, an admirable flexibility.

Top amongst the choristers must be the small group of first sopranos who sang the high soprano part in the 'Sanctus' from John Tavener's Missa corona spinea a challenging piece indeed with opens with the sopranos' tricky, mobile and rather rhythmic line, and the tessitura means that it needs to sound unforced too. They started the movement with aplomb, and the group brought a nice sense of build as the number of lines grew to the first tutti moment. By contrast Quemadmodum started at the very bottom of the texture, with remarkable results.

Tallis' Salve intemerata started somewhat tentatively with male chorus, but as textures thickened so confidence built too, and we moved steadily to the first tutti section. Roberts' performance kept the piece moving and the choir responded to the huge challenge by helping to create something architectural, not just a bunch of notes.

Tallis' lovely, simple English settings were somewhat torpedoed by the generous acoustic of St Bartholomew's Church. This was admirable for the elaborate polyphony, but English words tended to disappear into acoustic mush, yet we could admire Tallis' skill at writing such fine yet simple music.

Sung by a slightly smaller group (no sopranos, I think), Tallis' Lamentations were full of rich textures, and the group caught the lovely way the music unfolds effortlessly. These were almost certainly intended as coded messages for Catholic loyalists, the Anglican church had no liturgical use for these, yet the Anglicans at the court of Elizabeth I probably viewed them (and the large scale Byrd motets) as vocal chamber music. Of course Elizabeth I's own taste remained for Latin church music and the choir of the Chapel Royal sang such things.

Byrd's Vigilate had similar coded messages, yet was full of lively rhythmic details (not all of which made it cleanly through St Bartholomew's acoustic), whilst Ne Irascaris was notable for the way Byrd developed the rich toned piece from the low voiced opening.

Byrd's Tribue Domine (another example of a large-scale setting of a non-Liturgical Biblical text) was another large-scale piece, a hugely amibitious end to a challenging and rewarding programme.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for understanding what we are trying to achieve! Yes there will be the odd bit of nerve failing at some of the trickiest music, but we don't want to sound like one of the professional Oxbridge-originating choirs (one of which I sang in for a very long time!) Your very fair review picked up on how we are trying to add shape, understanding and real emotion to this music rather than just creating a very beautiful wall of perfect sound. Thank you!


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