Wednesday 14 October 2020

Author of Light: The Sixteen in an engaging and uplifting programme of Tudor music at Temple Church

Thomas Campion
Thomas Campion

Author of Light
- Campion, Cornysh, Byrd, De Monte; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers, David Miller; Temple Church

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 October 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Tudor music, sacred and secular, early and late, mixed in this engaging programme for Temple Music

Under the title Author of Light, Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, with lutenist David Miller, presented a concert of Tudor music, sacred and secular, at Temple Church on Tuesday 13 October 2020 as part of Temple Music's Autumn programme. Social distancing meant that the church was rather emptier than is usual for these occasions and The Sixteen performed with just ten singers, plus lutenist David Miller. The programme began and ended with choral pieces by Thomas Campion (1567-1620) and in the middle interwove Campion's solo songs with lute with motets by William Byrd (c1540-1623) and Philippe de Monte (1521-1603), and music both sacred and secular by William Cornysh (1465-1523) including the anthem Woefully array'd.

We began with Campion's Author of Light, perhaps more of a sacred madrigal than an anthem. The ensemble's sound was beautifully smooth, enlivened by crisp detail in the moving parts. One of Cornysh's secular pieces followed, My love she mourn'th. If William Cornysh wrote everything attributed to him, then he had a very wide range from Eton Choirbook motets to popular-inspired songs, but some commentators think that some repertoire is attributable to his father (also William Cornysh). My love she mourn'th set Ben Davies' shapely unaccompanied solo line against the sober melancholy of the male-voice ensemble, in a performance full of felicitous detail. 

Byrd's Ad Dominum cum tribularer provided a complete change of scale, an eight-part motet setting words from psalm 120 which may date from the 1560s and Byrd's time at Lincoln. It had a gorgeous rich, dense texture full of false relations and overall gave a sense of slowly unfolding whilst busy inner parts provided felicitous detail. 

We returned to the secular with Cornysh's delightful Ah, Robn, gentle robin sung by just three men, simple yet very effective. Alto Edward McMullan and lutenist David Miller's account of Campion's Most sweet and pleasing are thy ways was beautifully mellifluous, though somewhat disembodied as, coming from the opposite end of the church to the choir, we could not actually see the performers. McMullan never entirely solved the challenge of getting the words across in this generous acoustic. Another secular piece, sung by the tenors and basses, the vigorous part-song I am a jolly foster (foster evidently being the administrator of hunting territories!), followed by soprano Katy Hill and David Miller's performance of Campion's Never weather-beaten sail. Hill sang with lovely pure, clear tone and managed to convey a surprising number of words.

William Cornysh's anthem Woefully array'd came next. This sets a text which is attributed to John Skelton (1463-1529). The anthem is again rather closer to a sacred madrigal, though the form Cornysh uses with its variations of numbers and groupings of voices, is clearly linked to the early Tudor Latin anthems. The piece received a wonderfully strong and sober performance, and there was something very distinctive about Cornysh's part-writing with its openness and directness.

Alto Daniel Collins and David Miller then gave us Campion's To music bent is my retired mind, Collins shaping the lines finely whilst paying attention to the words. This was followed by another John Skelton setting, Cornysh's Hoyda, jolly rutterkin sung by the men with great vigour. It was a fun piece, and full of engagingly uneven rhythms. The final Thomas Campion lute song was Shall I come sweet love to thee?, sung by Alexandra Kidgell in a clear, pure soprano.

The young William Byrd probably met the Flemish composer Philippe de Monte when he was in England accompanying Philip II of Spain on his marriage to Queen Mary I. Philip brought over his choir, the Capilla Flamenca in which de Monte sang, and the choir collaborated on performances with the English Chapel Royal. Thomas Tallis' Missa puer natus est was probably written for these combined forces as Tallis writing is tailored to the habits and preferences of the Spanish choir (notably no high soprano part). Byrd and de Monte seem to have stayed in touch, both were Catholics, and their mutual settings of words from the same psalm, Super flumina Babylonis, seems to have been written as gestures of support for each other. De Monte's Super flumina Babylonis started out feeling quite intimate (sung by just eight singers) but with a slow build, whereas Byrd's Quomodo cantabimus was rather richer, warmer in texture with vivid evocations of the words.

We finished with Cornysh's Ave Maria, Mater Dei sung by the men (ATTB), a strong direct performance, for all the melismatic detail of the vocal lines. And then we came full circle with another Thomas Campion work, this time the choral version of Never weather-beaten sail. A lovely end to an imaginative concert.

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