Wednesday 22 December 2021

Hymns to the Virgin: the Tallis Scholars at St John's Smith Square's Christmas Festival

Josquin des Prez
1611 wood cut of Josquin,
copied from a now lost portrait

Hymns to the Virgin
- Lassus, Josquin, Guerrero, Martin, Stravinsky, Arvo Pärt, Isaac; The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips; St John's Smith Square

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 December 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Music extolling the Virgin from Josquin on dazzling form to more modern composers, ending with Heinrich Isaac in thrilling form

The 36th Christmas Festival is in full, albeit somewhat subdued, swing at St John's Smith Square and we caught Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars' programme, Hymns to the Virgin on Tuesday 21 December 2021. The centrepiece of the evening was Josquin's Missa 'Ave Maris Stella' and surrounding it were settings of Marian texts. So we began with Lassus and in the second half moved from the Iberian passion of Guerrero and Matthew Martin's contemporary reflection of his music, to the austere simplicity of Stravinsky and Arvo Pärt addressing Our Lady of Guadalupe and finally Heinrich Isaac's extraordinary paean extolling the Virgin, written for the Holy Roman Emperor.

Apart from the Josquin this was largely five part music (SSATB) with the ensemble using their usual two singers per part. But we began with Lassus' Alma redemptoris Mater that used two five part ensembles as Lassus reflect the poly-choral techniques that he had experience as a young man in Italy. Though the two choirs were used in dialogue, from the beginning the piece had a great sense of excitement that developed during the passages where the two choirs sang together in thrilling combination.

2021 is the 500th anniversary of Josquin's death, and the Tallis Scholars have completed their amazing cycle of recording all of the composers masses. Missa 'Ave Maris Stella' uses the plainchant Ave Maris Stella as the cantus firmus for the mass. It is a relatively early mass (written in Rome, dating probably from 1486-1495 and first published in Venice in 1505) and in the piece Josquin demonstrates his mastery by moving between older style techniques of basing the mass on a cantus firmus, voices weaving round the long notes of the chant, and more modern styles. The result was a work that was highly influential and widely known.

The Kyrie was poised and relaxed, with a great clarity of line and structure in the piece. Josquin's part writing was quite open and the whole had an effortless feel, despite the complexities that go into the construction. The Gloria had the same feel to it, though there was excitement too and a lovely willingness to reduce the textures down to just a few voices. Both music and performance felt effortless, as if the singers had the style in their bones. For all the occasional busy moment, the Credo had a sense of concentrated calm and clarity, that felt distilled in the Crucifixus but the movement concluded with vivid, rhythmic excitement. The Sanctus moved from the quiet beauty and calm of the opening to the surprisingly virtuosic 'Pleni sunt coeli' with long melismatic passages where Josquin seemed to be looking at another, older sound-world and in the Benedictus there was even an intriguing hint of the exotic in some of the melodic outlines. But the sense of concentrated calm and clarity returned with the Agnus Dei.

After the interval we began with Guerrero's motet Maria Magdalene, published in 1570, a finely sonorous piece that featured the cool poise of a pair of soprano parts interweaving over the richer, darker textures of the lower voices. Guerrero's Ave virgo sanctissima, one of his best known motets today, continued this sonorous sound world yet developed into something rather mystically intense. Matthew Martin's Sanctissima is a modern reflection on Guerrero's motet, taking motifs from the older piece but surrounding them with an entirely different context in an intriguing and somewhat discombobulating fashion. The passionate clarity of Guerrero's polyphonic textures replaced by a sense of intense and sometimes spiky, opaque harmonies.

Igor Stravinsky's Bogoroditse devo was one of a group of settings of the Russian Orthodox liturgy that Stravinsky wrote in the 1920s, strikingly simplifying his art to create a modern reflection of the Orthodox music the composer knew from his childhood. A tiny gem of a piece. 

Arvo Pärt wrote Virgencita in advance of a trip to Mexico and the piece sets an adaptation of a prayer to the Virgin of Guadalupe (Virgencita de Guadalupe). The opening moved between the quietly hypnotic and rich intensity of sound, but throughout the piece the sense of the quietly hypnotic kept returning. Pärt's harmonies created a lovely sense of a rocking motion throughout the piece, that climaxed with some intense drama, before the hypnotic opening returned. The overall effect was of a greater warmth and romanticism than in some of Pärt's cooler, more Baltic works as if the planned visit to Mexico was having an effect on the composer.

We ended with huge motet by Heinrich Isaac, written for his employer the Holy Roman Emperor. We don't hear anything like enough music by this composer whose position at the Emperor's court did not preclude extensive travels throughout Europe, with notable stays in Italy. His greatest achievement is his Choralis Constantius, a collection of 375 Gregorian chant-based polyphonic motets for the proper of the mass composed by Isaac and his pupil Ludwig Senfl for Constance Cathedral. Virgo Prudentissima was also composed for Constance, for a service where Isaac's employer, Emperor Maximilian I, was confirmed as Holy Roman Emperor.

It is a substantial piece, and Isaac structures the opening as a series of virtuosic two-voiced dialogues, full of excitement and vivid detail. The moments when the full ensemble sang had a wonderful up-front sound, and Isaac kept the interest by constantly changing the textures between sections. The final section, with the bass trumpeting out 'Electa es' was simply thrilling. More Isaac please.

  • The final release in the Tallis Scholars' project to record all of Josquin's masses is available from Gimmell Records
    • Josquin: Missa Hercules Dux Ferrarie, Missa D'ung aultre amer, Missa Faysant regretz - available from Amazon
  • This evening's mass is available on the ensemble's 2011 release
    • Josquin: Missa Ave maris stella, Missa De beata virgine - available from Amazon
  • Heinrich Isaac's motet Virgo prudentissima is available on the ensemble's 1991 disc of music by Isaac
    • Heinrich Isaac: Missa de Apostolis - available from Amazon

Never miss out on future posts by following us

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog

  • The Other Erlking: Songs and Ballads of Carl Loewe, from Nicholas Mogg and Jâms Coleman - record review
  • Focused intensity and sheer joyful elan: John Butt and Dunedin Consort perform Handel's Messiah at Wigmore Hall  - concert review
  • Music and meaning: Handel's Messiah from Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge and Britten Sinfonia with conductor David Watkin at the Barbican - concert review
  • Something more raw, that goes back to the origins of the stories: I chat to composer Glen Gabriel about his new album, Norse Mythology - my interview
  • The comfort of the familiar mixed with the intriguing, the lesser known and the downright unfamiliar: The Sixteen at Christmas - concert review
  • Poetic imagination: Andri Björn Róbertsson and Ástríður Alda Sigurðardóttir in songs by Árni Thorsteinson & Robert Schumann - record review
  • Bird Portraits: Edward Cowie's amazing musical exploration of birdlife - record review
  • Meyerbeer's first opera, written when he was just 21, is finally available in a modern recording that enables us to begin to appreciate what we've been missing - record review
  • Celebrating the 300th anniversary of their publication in 1720, Bridget Cunningham records Handel's Eight Great Harpsichord Suites - record review
  • A festive feast of Bach for Christmas: Gabrieli Consort & Players at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Dancing a pas de deux with Tchaikovsky and holidaying in North Africa: rumours swirled around Saint-Saens even before his death - feature
  • Being able to see Brahms as he was at the time: I chat to Jérémie Rhorer about recording historically informed Brahms with Le Cercle de l’Harmonie - interview
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month