Tuesday 22 June 2021

The Constant Heart: the Marian Consort at the Dunster Festival

Allegorical portrait of Sir John Luttrell by Hans Eworth, 1550
Allegorical portrait of Sir John Luttrell
by Hans Eworth, 1550
The Constant Heart
- Tallis, Giles, McKevitt, Van Wilder, Parsons, Rowarth, Clemens non Papa, Parsley; Marian Consort; Dunster Festival

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 June 2021
Themed around 16th century Sir John Luttrell's personal motto from his remarkable portrait by Hans Eworth, the Marian Consort's imaginative programme encompassed familiar and unfamiliar 16th century sacred music alongside two contemporary pieces

This year's Dunster Festival took place between 28 and 30 May 2021 when there were three live concerts presented to small socially distanced audiences, but the festival has also created a Digital Festival which has been going on-line since 11 June, taking footage from the three live concerts and combining it with extra material to create three digital events.

This week the second event went on-line, The Constant Heart, a programme of 16th century and contemporary music presented by the Marian Consort, whose artistic director Rory McCleery is co-artistic director of the Dunster Festival. The concert was themed around a remarkable picture which hangs in Dunster Castle, this is a copy made in the 1590s of a remarkable allegorical portrait of Sir John Luttrell painted by Hans Eworth in 1550 which makes reference to Sir John's military and naval service as well as including his motto, 'More than the Rock Amydys the Raging Seas, / The Constant Hert no Danger Dreddys nor Fearys' which gives the concert its name.

The programme included Lamentations of Jeremiah by Tallis and by his lesser-known contemporary Osbert Parsley, motets by Tallis, Nathaniel Giles, Robert Parsons, Philip van Wilder,  and Clemens non Papa plus two contemporary works, Donna McKevitt's Lament 16 and Ben Rowarth's Ave Maris Stella which was commissioned for the concert and whose text includes Sir John's motto. The on-line concert featured footage from the live concert at Dunster's Priory Church of St George along with items filmed at Cleeve Abbey, where the monks' refectory survives intact.

The programme began with Thomas Tallis' Lamentations of Jeremiah sung by the five singers (two sopranos, counter-tenor, tenor and bass). A dignified performance, steady in tempo and full of shapely phrases with plenty of space to allow us to appreciate the rise and fall of individual voices in the overall texture, bringing out the different colours of the various voices. Line was very important but so were words.

Nathaniel Giles (c1558-1634) sang in the Chapel Royal and for a time was Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal. But was also an impresario running a theatrical troupe of singing boys (many poached from the choir of the Chapel Royal), working with playwright Ben Jonson at Blackfriars Theatre. His motet Tibi soli peccavi survives textless in the Baldwin Commonplace Book, copied by John Baldwin (1560-1615) who was a singer at St George's Chapel, Windsor and the Chapel Royal. It may be textless because Baldwin knew it well enough to not need the text, or it may be for instrumental use. In fact, the motet came over as having a very instrumental feel. It linked to the following piece, Donna McKevitt's Lament 16 as both pieces are laments.

McKevitt's Lament 16 was receiving its first performance with a live audience at the festival. McKevitt sets a moving text by a Polish poet written after losing his two-year-old daughter. Starting from just a solo voice, which developed into a rich vocal texture, the work was tonal and often homophonic but with some striking, spicy harmonies and there was something a little period about the writing as well which meant the work fitted well into the programme.

The following two items were recorded by the ensemble at Cleeve Abbey, a Cistercian foundation suppressed in 1536 but where many of the monastic buildings survive including the fine 15th century refectory (the surviving buildings were rescued by the Luttrell family in the 1870s and turned into a tourist attraction). We heard Aspice Domine by Philip van Wilder (c1500-1553) who was master of music to Henry VIII. That Van Wilder's music was an influence on the young William Byrd could be heard very much in this motet, and I loved its use of imitation with voices in descending phrases creating waves of music. Still at Cleeve Abbey, the next item was Robert Parson's wonderful Ave Maria.

Returning to Dunster Church, we heard the premiere of Ben Rowarth's Ave Maris Stella which incorporated Sir John Luttrell's motto. The opening of the work was based around a single voice intoning the word 'Ave' with lots of strong harmony swirling around it, and this developed into some fascinating contemporary polyphony over drones, resulting in rather an intense piece. As with much of Rowarth's work, having heard it once I'd like to hear it again.

Memorial to Osbert Parsley, in Norwich Cathedral
Memorial to Osbert Parsley, in Norwich Cathedral

The flowing lines of Thomas Tallis' Salvator Mundi returned us to the 16th century and yet again all you could do was marvel at the way Tallis made it seem easy and obvious, even though there were some wonderful twists to the harmony. 

The motet Job tonso capite by the Netherlandish composer Clemens non Papa survives in a set of part-books created by a Norfolk merchant. There might only be five voices in the work, but Clemens non Papa creates some fine rich harmonies. For the final work in the programme we stayed with those Norfolk part-books for the Lamentations of Jeremiah by the Norfolk composer Osbert Parsley (1511-1585). He was a singing child and then a lay clerk at Norwich Cathedral and much of our knowledge of Parsley's life comes from the text of a memorial stone to him in the North aisle of the cathedral, a unique honour amongst lay singing men. His Lamentations is relatively compact, but featured some lovely and rather distinctive textures.

All three of the Dunster Festival's digital concerts will be available on-line for six months, besides The Constant Heart the festival features Agony and Ecstasy, Daniel Pioro (violin) and Clare O'Connell (cello) in a programme of Bach and Biber alongside three contemporary composers Rebecca Saunders, Cassandra Miller and Reiko Futing, and Clair de Lune, Emma Brain-Gabbott (soprano), Rachel Wick (harp) and Lawrence Sail (poet) in music by Debussy,  Louis Vierne, André Caplet and Jean-Michel Damase plus poetry in French and in English.

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