Tallis Scholars at St Johns Smith Square review ****

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The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips (director)

St John’s Smith Square, 31st March 2018

Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611)

  • Surrexit pastor bonus
  • Vidi speciosam
  • Magnificat for double choir
  • Missa pro defunctis Requiem

Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599)

  • Tota pulchra es
  • Hei mihi, Domine

Alonso Lobo (1555 -1617)

  • Versa est in luctum

Having dipped a toe into Early and Renaissance vocal music the Tourist probably finds himself listening to more than the average man on the street to Christian devotional music and Latin texts. This despite him being an avowed atheist and useless at languages. There is next to no cognitive dissonance arising from this set of circumstance, however, but he can now see;

  1. how the C16 and earlier man/woman on the street might get taken in by all the mumbo-jumbo given the power and beauty of the music (and art) that the Church offered (remember there were precious little other aural or visual stimuli to be had – no Candy Crush or Instagram in those days) and,
  2. how pointless it was setting it in a language said man/woman couldn’t understand leaving the door open for the Reformation to shake up the Catholic Church.

It has taken a bit of time but the Tourist has finally discovered the work of one Tomas Luis de Victoria thanks to the influence of some wise teachers. Snapped up a 10 CD disc by Ensemble Plus Ultra, a Gramophone Award Winner, for a bargain £30 after facing off the Amazon machine. I will likely die before I ever really get to grips with this music, (as for so much else), but there will be so much pleasure in the journey. Ensemble Plus Ultra are another in the long line of British early music vocal ensembles who, I expect, will have been inspired by the original wave of scholars and performers from the 1960s and 1970s, including our director for this evening, Peter Phillips, one of the grandaddies of the whole movement.

Now TVic was a big noise in C17 Spain, and along with Palestrina, based in Rome, and Orlando di Lasso, born in Mons in present day Belgium, but who worked all over Europe, was a major force in the Counter-Reformation when the Catholic church bit back. TVic was a performer and, helpfully, a priest but thankfully for us focussed on churning out compositions rather than taking confessions. I gather a fair bit is known about him, he worked in Rome for a spell before Philip II of Spain, the most important bloke in the world then with Spain at the height of its power, gave him the job of Chaplain to his sister, the Dowager Empress Maria in Madrid. This was Spain’s artistic Golden Age and these composers were a proud part of it.

I defy you note to be immediately drawn in by TVic’s grooves. The music is much more direct and “churchy”, with more affective melodies, than some of his European peers and predecessors. He is the master of manipulating, dividing and receding choirs. The polyphony is less complex than, say, Palestrina with more homophony, (everyone belting out the same text), but he creates some surprising textures and dissonances and a lot of melodic contrasts. He wasn’t averse to a bit of word-painting even though he only ever wrote sacred music.

The Surrexit pastor bonus is an Easter motet which is typical of TVic’s style, set for six voices which he combines in all manner of ways in just 3 minutes. It kicks off with dramatic soprano and the higher registers swirl around the lower basses. The Vidi speciosam is similarly scored and uses a popular Old Testament setting, (which also formed the basis for a TVic Mass). It starts off in a fairly restrained way but gradually builds out so that at times it feels like the whole of Wembley Stadium is in the room. TVic churned out 18 versions of the Magnificat but this one, Primi Toni, for two four part choirs, is entirely polyphonic with no plainchant intervals, though it is easy to hear the chant it comes from. There are a fair few effects along the way.

Francisco Guerrero was born and died in Seville, and spent most of his working life in Spain, but when he did venture abroad he packed a lot in, what with being attacked by pirates twice when coming back from the Holy Land, and landing up in debtor’s prison. Unlike TVic he wrote secular pieces in addition to motets and masses, though he also kept it homophonic and had a flair for drama. The first motet here, Toto pulchra es, is drawn from the same source as the Vidi speciosam and is similarly an paean of praise to the Virgin Mary, who was guaranteed to work the church fellas up into a right lather at that time. The second piece, Hei mihi, Domine is rather different with sharp contrasts and syncopated rhythms conjuring up a more impassioned plea for mercy in this Matins for the Dead.

Alonso Lobo was Guerrero’s sidekick at Seville Cathedral and took over when the old boy went walkabout. This chart-topping motet, Versa est in luctum, was written for Philip II’s funeral, and it shows with full-on “oh woe is us” grief-stricken passages from the book of Job apparently. It is his best known number. He had a spell in Toledo, (a city everyone must go to once in their life), and, in his life, was rated equally with TVic and Palestrina.

The meat of the concert was TVic’s Mass written on the death of his beloved employer Dowager Empress Maria. There are a fair few TVic masses, and I have only just started to get to grips with them, but if you need somewhere to start this might be it. TVic had 16 voices at his disposal when writing the piece and he took full advantage with six parts. It is a Mass for the Dead, a Requiem, based on the ancient plainchant melody, which becomes an immense structure in TVic’s hands. He also throws in a Versa est in luctum a la the Lobo motet and a lesson, Taedet animam meam, to serve up a near 50 minute funeral celebration for that is how it feels in spite of the subject. Old Dowager Maria may have shuffled off this mortal coil but in the afterlife she had loads to look forward to based on this music.

Obviously the Tallis Scholars under PP were perfect. They create a big sound but you are always aware of where the music comes from and what its point is and there’s no fancy grandstanding. It is hard sometimes in these concerts not to give in completely to the wall of sound and float off, but the Scholars in tandem with the composers, especially TVic provide enough contrast and drama to bring you back inside the music, its structure and its story.

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir at Milton Court review ****

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Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Kaspars Putnins (conductor)

Milton Court Concert Hall, 30th January 2018

Arvo Part

  • Solfeggio
  • Summa
  • Magnificat
  • Zwei Beter
  • The Woman With the Alabaster Box
  • Nunc dimittis
  • Dopo la vittoria

Cyrillus Kreek

  • Onnis on inimene (Blessed is the Man)
  • Psalm 104

Jonathan Harvey

  • Plainsongs for Peace and Light
  • The Angels

Veljo Tormis

  • Kutse jaanitulele from Jaanilaulud (St John’s Day Songs for Midsummer Eve)
  • Raua needmine (Curse Upon Iron)

Now I gather that the Estonian people like a sing-song. Choirs are a big deal there and choral singing and national identity are tightly bound together. They even had a Singing Revolution between 1987 and 1991 as they sought independence from the Soviet Union. So this evening was an event and was graced with the presence of no less than Estonia’s Prime Minister Juri Ratas.

Now I am not going to pretend this was the main draw for me. Profound apologies Your Excellency, but what intrigued me was the opportunity to here some of the choral works of the mighty Arvo Part sung by his country men and women. Albeit mostly in Latin, with a German, English and Italian text thrown in for good measure. Now I genuinely believe that the magic of Part’s “holy minimalist” tintinnabuli can work on anyone. I believe I am right in saying he is the most performed living “classical” composer. That doesn’t mean people are whistling Speigel am Speigel on every street corner though. This is still a minority pastime, but I do think there is something in his music, (and the spaces between the notes), which can burrow into the soul of all who come across it. Not that they have souls. That is obviously mumbo-jumbo. Old Arvo might sign up to Orthodox Christianity but not me. But it does something. Even if it is just to clear the head and leave you suspended in the sound for the duration of the piece.

So it was a pleasure to rope in MSBD to the Part party. Now, in retrospect, it might have been better to break him in gently with the usual programmatic device of interspersing Part’s choral works with other contemporary composers who relish the challenge of a choir as well as selected Renaissance masters. Even I have to admit that seven of Part’s choral works back to back can induce a slowing of the heart rate that is difficult to distinguish from slumber.

The opener Solfeggio is particularly interesting. It was originally written in 1964, though I think refined in 1993, which means it actually came before Part announced himself to the world with the bang. crash, wallop of Credo for chorus, orchestra and piano in 1968. This remember was when Part was a paid-up serialist, although Credo for my money is still a cracking piece of music. Solfeggio asks the choir to trot out an ascending C major row in strict serial fashion, singing, would you believe, “do re mi … “, but you’d be hard pressed to tell it apart from the “classic” Part style which emerged in 1977 after the several year hiatus and his personal enlightenment.

Summa is a setting of the Credo from the Latin Mass, though its title conceals its origin,  composed in the pivotal year of 1977. It was, along with Part’s settings of the Magnificat (1989) and Nunc dimitis (2001) for the Anglican evensong, the most entrancing of the evening’s performances. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has a bewitching and very exact delivery with clear definition across the parts. This means the intriguing shifts that Part employs here, and the shimmering climaxes, especially in the Nunc, seemed more suited to their style. In contrast the more direct The Woman with the Alabaster Box from 1997, sung in English and which sees adjacent thirds appear under long sustained notes, was less thrilling to me than the Latin texts, which are all based on Part’s “classic” stepwise triads.

Zwei Beter, based on the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican I gather, is a more complex beast, (it’s all relative mind you), with denser harmonies and sung in German. Now one way or another I have recordings of most of Part’s works, (I think some remain unrecorded), but I didn’t know this piece at all. In contrast I am familiar with Dopo la vittoria from 1996 which is also somewhat more “complex” than the Latin texts. Sung in Italian this “piccolo cantata” tells the story of the baptism of Augustine by St Ambrose, (who apparently broke into song whilst doing the necessary), the patron saint of Milan for which city it was written. There is a discernible story with defined sections, including a brisk opening and ending, and some pronounced homophony at crucial, uplifting points. Who said Part all sounds the same.

After the interval we were treated to a pair of psalm settings by Cyrillus Kreek, an Estonian composer from the generation prior to Part, and a man who devoted his life to setting the country’s rich legacy of folk songs into choral arrangements. These songs stem from the wave of Estonian nationalism that stirred in the second half of the C19. These two pieces were very easy on the ear and sung with real conviction by the choir. A pair of works by British composer Jonathan Harvey followed, from the end of his career. Harvey regularly turned to choirs alongside his electronic and chamber pieces. The Angels was set by the Bishop of Winchester to which Harvey adds a hummed accompaniment. Plainsongs is more substantial polyphony with some beautiful, gently dissonant passages across its sixteen parts.

Finally the EPCC treated the audience to two works from Veljo Tormis, who passed away last year, after actually retiring in 2000. Slightly older than Part, but possibly even more renowned in his homeland, with a huge body of choral work to his name. Most of the settings stem from Estonian folk songs and I gather it is fair to say he has inspired multiple generations with his music. He was born during Estonia’s short lived inter-war period of independence, lived through the German and Soviet annexations and the Socialist Republic, and through to independence again. He mixed with all the big names during his musical education in Russia and was “honoured” with his own KGB files.

The first piece belongs to a cycle which describes the important Midsummer celebrations. It starts simply enough but builds into something more sophisticated. The Germanic influence is clear. But this was just a taster for the extraordinary Curse of Iron which followed. Apparently this gets a fair few airings outside Estonia and it isn’t difficult to see why. To the rhythm of a simple drum beat throughout, and with solo bass and tenor parts, Mr Tormis sets a story based on a Finnish epic, but sung in Estonian. It is, like it says, a curse on iron, as you do, and it is very dramatic. A ritual with repeated ostinatos, I have never heard anything like it. Neither had MSBD. Imagine a kind of shamanistic chant which ends up with sopranos warning against nuclear proliferation. Can’t. Well go and hear it then. It’s on I-Player since the concert was recorded for Radio 3.

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir concert recording

A riveting way to end the concert and unsurprisingly the EPCC, and especially their Latvian conductor Kaspars Putnins, were having a ball during it. If I were part of the Estonian guest party I would have found it pretty difficult not to get up and join in. Pride in their country but pride in Europe too methinks. Great stuff.

The Cardinall’s Musick at St John’s Square review ****

The Cardinall’s Musick // Andrew Marwood - London Wednesday 5

The Cardinall’s Musick, War and Peace

St John’s Smith Square, 19th November 2017

  • William Byrd – Kyrie from Mass for five voices
  • William Byrd – Ad Dominum cum tribularer
  • Benjamin Britten – Advance Democracy
  • James MacMillan – When you see the millions of the mouthless dead
  • Orlando Gibbons – O Lord in thy wrath
  • James MacMillan – A Child’s prayer
  • William Byrd – Agnus Dei from Mass for five voices
  • William Byrd – Kyrie from Mass for four voices
  • Philippe de Monte – Super flumina Babylonis
  • William Byrd – Quomodo cantabimus
  • James MacMillan – Emitte lucem tuam
  • Arvo Pärt – Da pacem
  • James MacMillan – Christus vincit
  • William Byrd – Agnus Dei from Mass for four voices
  • William Byrd – Peccavi super numerum

Sitting in Thomas Archer’s fine Baroque masterpiece church, rapt audience, listening to one of the UK’s finest ensemble interpreters of C16 and C17 British vocal music, here singing a diverse set of texts from composers past and present framed by extracts from William Byrd’s finest works, the Masses for four and five voices. And all to remember the fallen of past conflicts.

The Britten piece is packed with drama and I see nothing wrong with the pungent warning against Fascism in the text. As ever with the James MacMillan’s work the directness and invention wins you over but I have to say A child’s prayer, written in memory of the victims of Dunblane, pulls you right up with its repeated dirge of “Welcome”. Even by Part’s standards Da pacem is sparse but still so powerful. The biggest surprise of this excellent evening however was the Philippe de Monte motet which apparently stuck a chord with the nominally recusant Byrd. And the concluding five part Byrd motet, Peccavi super mumerum, which was new to me, left me pinned to my seat.

Don’t go through your life without William Byrd. I should probably stop there. So I will.

The Judas Passion at St John’s Smith Square review ***

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Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, Nicholas McGegan, Brenden Gunnell, Roderick Williams, Mary Bevan, Choir of the OAE

St John’s Smith Square, 25th September 2017

The Judas Passion is a new work commissioned by the OAE and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra San Francisco, and was composed by Sally Beamish with a libretto by David Harsent. Now I had not heard any of Ms Beamish’s works before, though she is an eminent modern British composer, but this felt like an “event”, so I decided that my presence lurking in the back was required. The convenience of an hour long piece starting at 7pm was also an attraction.

Now new Passions to match the heights reached by JS Bach are few on the ground. Commissions of liturgal works are perforce limited and few composers are likely to have the desire or the belief to engage in such an exercise. Which is a shame because when they do, as with Penderecki’s St Luke Passion or, better still, Part’s Passio, it can bring forth transcendent music. And this from a committed atheist.

The Judas Passion was doubly interesting because of the way librettist David Harsent (a poet who has written libretto’s for Sir Harrison Birtwhistle’s major operas) chose to set out the Passion story. It is told from Judas’s perspective and shows him not as the customary dastardly villain but as a man who is chosen, and forgiven, by Christ to act as he did. The simple, but very affecting libretto, explores this idea with single parts for Judas (American tenor Brendan Gunnell), Jesus (baritone Roderick WIlliams) and Mary Magdalene (soprano Mary Bevan) who acts as a sort of narrator. The disciples create the chorus as well as a part for an interchangeable God/Devil to emphasise the duality of Judas’s motives.

All round the singing was very fine, but I was particularly struck by Mary Bevan who lent a melancholy to her lines which was fitting. She is playing the lead in Coraline, Mark-Antony Turnage’s new opera, which is on my to see list. The score is terse which fits the drama and largely taken at a moderate pace with a couple of more energetic episodes. The tone is deliberately Baroque (with harpsichord and lute alongside strings, flutes, natural horns and occasional trumpets) with many canonic and fugal nods to JS Bach and a barrage of more or less interesting percussive effects. The singers were lightly choreographed by stage director Peter Thomson (with not a lot of stage to play with) which definitely heightened the performance for me.

I am not sure how the score would stand up as a recording or in a large concert hall. However, as a chamber “opera”, redolent of Britten’s Church Parables, with costume and movement, I think it would be extremely effective. Words, music and action together tell an involving story, with a bold perspective which draws on more than just the Biblical gospels. A true Passion I suppose.