Pergolesi and Vivaldi: OAE at the Queen Elizabeth Hall review ****

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Katherine Watson (soprano), Rowan Pierce (soprano), Zoe Brookshaw (soprano), Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor), Katharina Spreckelsen (oboe), Choir of the Age of Enlightenment 

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 11th November 2019

  • Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) – Stabat Mater
  • Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni (1671-1751) – Oboe Concerto in D minor, Op.9 No.2
  • Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) – Gloria RV 589

Last year a Pergolesi Stabat Mater with BUD from the AAM. This year the OAE take with MSBD and Katherine Watson (braving a cold) and Iestyn Davies in the soloist chairs. I’ve already banged on about Pergolesi before. This is his most famous work. Written just before his early death from TB. More than a hint of the comic opera about its style, which are, largely, his other, authenticated contributions to Baroque musical history, (I have a recording of some of his instrumental offerings). Though certainly not its serious religious subject, a C13 poem depicting Mary’s vigil at the foot of the Cross. Took the European musical world by storm and, on and off, has been a favourite ever since. Immediate, direct and very effective, it is impossible not to be carried along by the lean, melodic strings offset with deliberately nostalgic stile antico effects, (from the time before Monteverdi revolutionised Western music). These include prolonged cadences and delayed resolutions. Feel the pain. Lovely but a couple of times a year is enough for me.

Albinoni was a prolific composer, around 80 operas, 40 chamber cantatas, 60 concertos and 80 sonatas, and was, in his day, as popular as Corelli and Vivaldi. Though not quite as good IMHO. Then again he only really considered himself a violinist and, being a rich toff, didn’t have to work. SO we should applaud his industry. And, in the oboe concertos, he did come up with some of the finest music ever written for the instrument. His Op 9 set contains 4 for solo oboe and 4 for two oboes and this one, No 2 is considered the best of them. It kicks off with an elegant medium paced Allegro, follows with a sublime and generous slow movement, with an aching, bel canto solo line against a rocking string ripieno, (which MSBD was much taken with), and a bouncy, scurrying finale, which again gives the soloist plenty of opportunity to show off. And, when it comes to Baroque oboe, very few can match the OAE’s Katharina Spreckelsen.

Last live listen to Gloria was with MS and MSC at the Cadogan Hall with the ECO, so it has become something of a family affair, (even the SO and BD have grinned, and, to be fair, more than bore it, in the past. Famously AV wrote the Gloria for a full SATB choir. despite their being, at least officially, no blokes in the Ospedale della Pieta, bar carrot top himself. Which means they were drafted in, or perhaps, in the array of talents in the convent, there were females basses or at least voices low enough to take the parts, maybe with the whole pitched an octave higher. The contemporary audience would never have known, the young women being concealed behind a grills at the balconies where they performed. We had the OAE’s dedicated chamber choir, thankfully in full view, a scratch outfit of professionals perfectly matched to the OAE’s beefy sound. This I can listen to more than a couple of times a year.

Our Lady of Kibeho at the Theatre Royal Stratford East review *****

Our Lady of Kibeho

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 31st October 2019

Old Billers, now set to enjoy retirement as he steps down from his job as chief critic at the Guardian, knows a thing or two about theatre. So, when he identified, with his colleagues, OLOK as one of the best original plays of the C21, it reinforced the need to see it. There are plenty of other crackers on the list. I would concur with the likes of The York Realist, Escaped Alone, King Charles III, The Ferryman, Enron, The Watsons, Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads, Caroline, or Change, One Man Two Guvnors and the Lieutenant of Inishmore, some of Billers’ other choices, but would be tempted to add Oil, Hangmen, John, Sweat, Love and Information and A Number to the list.

Anyway I missed OLOK at the Royal and Derngate so was very pleased to see it pop up in Stratford and, correctly as it turned out, ventured that this would be something which would pique the SO’s interest. For OLOK is an extraordinary story based on “real” events. Kibeho is a small village in SW Rwanda, home to a Catholic convent secondary school where, in the early 1980s, apparitions of the Virgin Mary appeared to three of the students, Alphonsine Mumureke, Anathalie Mukamazimpaka and Marie Claire Mukangango. The Virgin specifically warned in August 1982 of a Rwanda descending into hated and violence, seen as a premonition of the war and 1994 Genocide, though tensions between Hutu and Tutsi were already escalating. The school itself was destroyed in 1995 with the girls involved, (there were other claimed visionaries), themselves fleeing or dying at the hands of the Hutu militia.

In 1988 the local bishop, Augustin Misago, who was subsequently accused and acquitted of involvement in the Genocide, approved devotion at the site and the Catholic Church eventually sanctified the visionaries. Kihebo is now a place of pilgrimage. Katori Hall’s play, which was first produced in New York in 2014, pretty much cleaves to the story, with this much dramatic material to work with why wouldn’t you, and works not just because it examines the horror of what happened in Rwanda in those dark years, but also the nature of faith and the workings of the Catholic Church. And it does this not with clunky exposition, exaggerated dialogue or blundering censure, but with compassion and through concentrating on these very human characters.

Against the backdrop of Jonathan Fensom’s straightforward but effective set, a room in the hermetic convent, paint faded on the mud and plaster walls, we meet the three girls at the centre of the visitation, played by Taz Munya, Liyah Summers and Pepter Lunkuse, as well as their classmates, actors Aretha Ayeh, Michaela Blackburn, Perola Congo and Rima Nsubuga. The girls display the usual cliquey rivalries exacerbated by Hutu/Tutsi division. All of these young actors convinced, helped by voice and dialect coach Hazel Holder, though Taz Munya as Alphonsine, the naive newcomer and “first” of the visionaries, and Pepter Lunkase, as Marie-Claire, the bullying leader of the Hutu girls who initially mocks Alphonsine, before herself succumbing to the full on Marian experience. Movement director Diane Alison-Mitchell, as well as magic and aerial consultants, John Bulleid and Vicki Amedume when it comes to the end of act I coup de theatre, deserves immense credit for making the ecstatic visitations very real, even a little bit disturbing, though of course I wouldn’t actually know what it is to be called upon by VM.

The tolerant Father Tuyisheme, (a fine performance from Ery Nzaramba), a Tutsi whose wife has already been murdered, initially is the only one who believes the girls who fawn over him, but gradually the evidence of their own eyes persuades the domineering and envious Hutu Sister Evangelique (Michelle Asante), the lofty bishop Gahamanyi (Leo Wringer) and, when he is sent from the Vatican to asses the evidence, the sceptical Father Flavia (Michael Mears). Though their reasons for back-pedalling are not always pure and holy as the hierarchy sees the potential financial benefits of having a pilgrimage site in the middle of Africa, and even the increasingly uncomfortable good Father Tuyisheme plays along with the Church’s testing conditions. The credibility of what the visionaries claimed to see only became clear in retrospect of course, recognised “officially” in 2001, and the rebuilt church in Kibeho now is a magnet for tens of thousands visitors from across the Catholic world. (Anathalie Mukamazimpaka now lives on the site: Marie Claire Mukangang was murdered there).

Now, if, like the Tourist, you think all this visitation and Virgin Mary cult stuff is all nonsense, don’t worry, it won’t stop you enjoying the play. I haven’t seen Katori Hall’s previous feted play, The Mountaintop, set the day before Martin Luther King’s assassination, but she entrusted its direction at the Theatre 503 where it first appeared in the UK, to James Dacre, now the AD at the Royal and Derngate, and she has done the same here. I can see why. There are, of course, obvious parallels with classic plays such as The Crucible and Saint John (and, if you will forgive the re-location, Lynn Nottage’s Ruined), but this is very much an original. The value of faith against such a harrowing backdrop is questioned, as are the motives for the acceptance of the miraculous, but always in a modest and equivocal way, which Mr Dacre is attuned to, as is Charles Balfour’s lighting, Claire Windsor’s sound and Orlando’s Gough’s composition.

A thought-provoking subject and production, full of fine detail, that never loses sight of plot or character. And by occupying a time, before, and a place, apart, from the war to come Ms Hall succeeds in amplifying her message. It is no surprise then that MB rated it so highly and that we concurred. Whilst I can’t pretend that Tina the Musical, for which Katori Hall wrote the book, is on my list of must sees, I confessed to being intrigued by the premise of the TV show she has created, P-Valley, (though, as usual, I will rely on LD and BD to explain how and where to access it), and will keep a weather eye out for any new or revived theatre work from her.

The Pope at the Royal and Derngate review ****

The Pope

Royal and Derngate Theatre Northampton, 13th June 2019

I suspect Kiwi Anthony McCarten has trousered a few quid in the last fewyears. What with writing the screenplay for The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody. But he has returned to his roots with this play, The Pope. Well maybe not exactly since this is actually going to end up as a film, released later this year, entitled Two Popes,(which to be fair is a more literally correct title), and starring Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins. Whether these two titans of the stage and screen will match their two peers on show here in Northampton will likely be moot but I can report that this is a cracking story which, whilst packing a powerful dramatic punch, will likely benefit from the expanded breadth and location that film can bring.

Particularly in the first half of the story. The Pope takes the real life “abdication” of Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, (Anton Lesser) who is then succeeded by the current Pope Francis, Jorge Bergoglio, (Nicholas Woodeson), to contrast the conservative and liberal theological and practical viewpoints in the Catholic Church. When the two meet, after PBXVI summons PF to Rome to tell him of his intention, we get a good old fashioned dualistic debate which, in the hands of AL and and NW is absolutely gripping. In the first half however, when we get to see how each of them “got to where they are now” practically and philosophically, each with the help of a nun sidekick, the theatre is a good bit clunkier.

Even so it is pretty easy to see why Mr McCarten is such a good writer for the screen. There is, once we are into the swing of things, some sparkling dialogue and some properly powerful ding-dong. You don’t have to be a student of the Catholic Church or of religion generally to get the arguments. Of course it helps that Ratzinger is a buttoned up German, brought up in Nazi Germany, and a stickler for tradition, God’s Rottweiler as he was dubbed. He is devoted to Mozart, cabaret and some dog based soap opera (!). Bergoglio in contrast was a football loving, tango dancing Argentinian whose liberation theology was forged during the very dark days of the junta. He has a playful sense of humour, likes The Beatles and, I reckon, an eye for the ladies. And he becomes the first Jesuit Pope.

The regular reader of this blog will know that the Tourist takes a very dim view of organised religion in all its forms, (though he is somewhat hypocritically a massive fan of Christian art and architecture). And those Catholics seem to still be so f*cked up about sex. And cannot seem to confront the stain of abuse. All this angst though provides the ruminative material for Mr McCarten’s thoroughly researched, though speculative, text. The way that the contrasts between the two also highlight their similarities, such that antagonism and suspicion eventually resolves into mutual respect for each other and the bedrock of their shared faith, is a tale as old as the hills. After all it is Ratzinger who wants to break with 700 years of tradition and resign rather than die with his boots on in the Vatican.

Of course whilst Mr McCarten has the knack of drawing you in and pumping you up, he can’t resist, as those familiar with the films above will know, turning the emotional hyperbole dial up to 11. But whilst this occasionally grates it is easily forgiven especially when delivered by two actors of this calibre. I have no idea how Nicholas Woodeson has plotted his career through stage and screen. Maybe he just does what ever he fancies. But he is always bang on the money. Anton Lesser may have more of a classical bent, and I have some very fond early memories of him on the RSC stage, but he is similarly brilliant in whatever he does. It was genuinely thrilling to see him back in a theatre. Watching the two of them knock seven bells out of each other philosophically and then make up in some sort of liturgical bromance was delicious. And all this for less than a tenner.

Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins will have their work cut out to top this even if one might argue they are even bigger draws. (For my money Anton Lesser and Jonathan Pryce, along with Diana Rigg, Charles Dance and Stephen Dillane, were the very best of the illustrious bunch that showed the way to the newbies in GOT).

Even with these two leads and peppy script the play needed direction though and once again James Dacre was the man for the job. I guess having Paul Dace as your Dad, going to Eton, then Cambridge, and an intensive spell in US theatre, was never going to be a recipe for doubt or apprehension but you still have to admire the young man’s ambition. He may have inherited a space and a legacy from previous AD Laurie Sansom but even so it is easy to see why the R&D continues to scoop regional theatre awards. It might not be too much of a trek for the Tourist from the Smoke to Northampton but for theatre of this quality he would happily sit on a train for hours. Just take this 2019 Made in Northampton season. So far Our Lady of Kibeho (en route to Theatre Royal Straford), the terrific adaptation of The Remains of the Day., a belting Ghosts, Headlong’s Richard III with Tom Mothersdale. Just opening Complicite’s The Last of the Pelican Daughters. To come August Wilson’s Two Trains Running and A View From The Bridge to add to the R&D’s Miller stable. I assume the R&D makes a decent enough turn from all the touring of its productions but I strongly recommend if Northampton is anywhere near you you come join us old folk who still dominate and swell the coffers further.

Whilst the two female supporting roles of Sister Brigitta and Sister Sophia largely serve as devices to illuminate the Popes’ back stories Faith Alabi and Lynsey Beauchamp are as committed as the leads. And no expense has been spared on the elegant set and costumes courtesy of Jonathan Fensom, the lighting and sound designs of Charles Balfour and David Gregory respectively and even the composition from Anne Dudley and the video from Duncan McLean. There is nothing that would look out of place here on St Martins Lane. Who knows maybe after the film, (and the book, did I mention that?), that is precisely where it well end up.

Bach St John Passion: OAE at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Simon Rattle (conductor), Peter Sellars (director), Choir of the Enlightenment

Royal Festival Hall, 2nd April 2019

JS Bach – St John Passion

  • Camilla Tilling (soprano)
  • Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano)
  • Andrew Staples (tenor)
  • Mark Padmore (tenor, Evangelist)
  • Roderick Williams (baritone, Jesus)
  • George Nigl (baritone)

The Tourist, along with chum for the night TMBOAD, was recently blindsided, in a good way, by the staging of Britten’s War Requiem at the ENO which was far more theatrical than he had anticipated. Well blow me if if didn’t happen again with this St John Passion. I had not really clocked the presence of Peter Sellars on the list of creatives so had only anticipated a semi-staged version, a bit of movement, some subtle lighting, that sort of thing. However, from the moment we saw the OAE lined up on one side of the stage, it was clear something more was on the cards. What we didn’t expect was a full blown, punch to the gut emotional, acted out Passion, complete with modern dress costumes, (red and blue for the Marys, monochrome for the rest), occasional props, an immensely atmospheric lighting design courtesy of Ben Zamora, musical solos from memory, (my favourite was Simone Jandl and her viola d’amore and Katharine Spreckelsen and her oboe da caccia), and even walk-on contributions from Sir Simon Rattle himself.

The St John Passion is a powerful work of act even without the dramatisation, reflecting the subject, (even for those of us who have no faith), and the direct, even simple, way that JSB chose to set it. I can imagine that there will be those who would prefer, in theory, to be left to focus on the music, the voices and the text, but I would defy them not to be bowled over by the extra dimension that Peter Sellars staging brings to the work. This is not the first large scale Bach vocal work that the Tourist and BUD have shared in recent years, we have a B Minor Mass and a Christmas Oratorio under our belt, and the Tourist has a number of independent Bachian choral sojourns on top of this. The Tourist may have waited until his middle ages before he “got” Bach but now he consumes with the zeal of the convert.

Now as it happens Bach himself was reproached by some in the 1720s and beyond for the theatricality of his Passion settings and the fact that he revised them on multiple occasions in later years partly reflected this as well as a more realistic approach to the logistics of the piece and to tighten it up musically. So those who might initially object to this Sellars/Rattle ritualised version as liturgically inappropriate or offensive are in “good” company. There will have been a time after all when staging the Passion in the concert hall rather than the Church will have provoked the ire of some.

Whilst there are some belting chorus parts and chorales in the SJP the thing that really strikes me is the starkness of the settings with minimal instrumental accompaniment to many of the arias and with much use of recitative, and not just from The Evangelist’s narration. A lot of the first two parts is told from the perspective of those around Christ, and, assuming this translation is accurate, the text is very immediate and shorn of ornamentation. JSB cleverly creates a symmetrical structure, centred on the chorale Durch dein Gefangnis, as Pilate seeks to release Jesus, either side of which is the same pattern of choruses, some fugal, solos and chorales but in reverse order. This creates a musical order and narrative structure which informs the “drama”. It is not, as Sir Simon observes in the programme, a very melodic piece even if it does have some very arresting, and surprisingly experimental, musical passages. In short, with these forces, six soloists, a choir of 32 and the OAE numbering 30, it very much has the feel of opera, putting aside its subject. It certainly has emotional clout.

So easy to see why Sir Simon and Peter Sellars long cherished the idea of staging it in this way, finally realised in 2014 in Berlin when Sir Simon was head honcho at the Berlin Phil. The soloists here, led by the very deliberate Mark Padmore, who is pretty much the go too Evangelist, and the superb Roderick Williams as a visibly suffering Jesus, as well as Camilla Tilling, Christine Rice, Andrew Staples and George Nigl, were on top form and all can act as well as sing and the chorus brought real drama to their turns. The fact that the latter four soloists take multiple “roles” creates a texture and an audience empathy that a straight concert hall performance can lack. Contemporary resonance abounds with George Nigl’s equivocating politician Pilate yielding to the “will of the people” and the blindfolding and torture of Christus under investigation.

OK so occasionally some of Mr Sellar’s choreographic tropes grated a little, the hand gestures, the just-so re-creations of classic Renaissance paintings, the singing from prone positions, the pauses to get everyone in the right place, and the sur-titles, whilst a necessary part of the staging, were a bit too curt at times, and, whilst I don’t know where to take the interval the second half, as is usual, is a bit long compared to the first. Overall though this definitely ticked the box for BUD and myself.

Mind you we are, contrary to all appearances a couple of avowed modernists where it comes to our dramatic preferences. And so, I am willing to bet, are the vast majority of punters. Two hours plus of Bach and the story of Christ’s death may not float the boat of many outside us classical music buffs but I doubt there could be a better way to spread the word. Which ultimately is why the old fella wrote this masterpiece in the first place.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library review *****

Anglo-Saxon Kingsdoms: Art, Word, War

British Library, 30th December 2018

I mean it isn’t all books. There are charters and letters as well. And pottery, coins, art and jewels. But there are a lot of books. Oh my word though, what beautiful books. If you are at all interested in this period of history and the formation of our country, and you like, as Tubbs would say, precious things, (which haven’t been burnt, or otherwise destroyed, notably by the dispersal of monastic libraries in the 1530s), then this is unmissable. The British Library has wheeled out some of its finest treasures from the period, Beowulf, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the St Cuthbert Gospel and Bede’s works, but it doesn’t stop there, with some extraordinary loans from the British Museum, Cathedrals (Canterbury, Durham, Exeter, Lichfield and Rochester), Oxbridge colleges (notably the Parker Library at Corpus Christi Cambridge) and generous institutions around the world (notably France, the Netherlands, Sweden and, maybe best of all, Italy).

The exhibition begins with the first Anglo-Saxons coming to Britain in the 5th century, takes us through the kingdoms that emerged, Kent, East Anglia, Northumberland, Mercia and Wessex, before England was created, as well as the continuing influence of the Danes, and, finally the Normans. We see how the history, art and literature of these Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms developed, and we see the emergence of the English language, (though don’t expect, unless you are an expert in these things, to be able to read the manuscripts. but do listen to the spoken originals and modern translations provided).

The earliest evidence of the language is contained in some cynic inscriptions and a Kentish law code in the first room, Origins. My first highlight though was the unique Spong Man urn lid from the 5th century, he looks so crestfallen, but then again so might you if you were sat atop someone’s ashes. The St Augustine Gospels from the late 6th century are something special, but the Moore Bede from the mid 8th century, copied out soon after the Venerable’s death at his own monastery Wearmouth-Jarrow, is a jaw-dropper. This is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the page on show tracing the journey of St Augustine, in letters. The script is pretty dense but this is basically the beginning of our written history.

The second room, Kingdoms and Conversions, has some exquisite jewellery from, amongst others, Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard, but once again I was drawn to the scripts. The fragment of a letter from St Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, possibly from the late 4th century, brought here by Abbot Hadrian, various charters, letters and rules from the 7th and 8th centuries, the beginnings of our systems of law, and the Book of Durrow from c. 700 with its various decorative influences. These are trumped though by the beautifully preserved Echternach Gospels, maybe from Ireland, maybe Northumbria, maybe Echternach itself in Luxembourg, the even more spectacular Lindisfarne Gospels also c. 700, and, drum roll please, the Codex Amiatinus.

OMG. Now even if your are some bored teen being dragged around by your pillock of a Dad I defy you not to be impressed by this. First off, it is bloody enormous, 1030 leaves in total. Secondly the page it is open to, a full page illumination of a scribe at work, is just so vibrant and, finally, the history of the Bible itself is just so fascinating. One of three made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early years of the 8th century it was taken in 716 by Abbot Ceolfrith and chums to Rome. AC, poor chap, died on the way but in the 1300 years until now it has been cared for in Italy, latterly at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence. Welcome home then Codex Amiatinus, if only for a short visit. It is the oldest complete Latin Vulgate version of the Bible; only the fragmentary Leon palimpsest is older. It was assumed to be Italian, from the 6th century, until some top-drawer research revealed that it was actually created during Northumbria’s Golden Age.

Take your time surrounded by these gems. There are more treasures to come but this room, for me, was the pinnacle. The next room, Mercia and Its Neighbours, details the rise of that kingdom, through military power and political skill, and the creation of a third archdiocese at Lichfield alongside York and Canterbury. Once again the Gospels (Barberini, St Chad, Harley Golden) will draw your eye, as will the Lichfield Angel if you have not see it before, but I was particularly interested in the various charters, from King Aethebald dated 736 and from King Offa dated 783, and the evidence of links with Charlemagne in mainland Europe. It made me reflect again on how the powerful choose leaders primarily to validate their own appropriation of land and capital, and spend an awful lot of time arguing with each other to secure leaders more amenable to their ambitions.

The Favourite, Richard II, C18 British history, Brexit newsflow, this exhibition. All entertainments and/or learnings on the Tourist’s plate in the last couple of weeks, all variations in part on this theme. Similarly the next room, The Rise of the West Saxons, which charts the ascendancy of King Alfred and his successors and the idea of an England. Now the Tourist cheerfully confesses that he is addicted to The Last Kingdom, the TV series now in its third season, based on Bernard Cornwall’s The Saxon Stories novels. Now it is a bit daft at times, and cheesy, and the main protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, and his mates, do, implausibly, get about a bit. He may be fictional but many of the other players on show were for real and, in David Dawson playing Alfred, it has a top-notch actor showing his class. Like I always say, take your education wherever you can.

By 880 Alfred had made peace with the Danes, who were increasingly “naturalising”, and promoted a cultural leap forward, with the development especially of the English language. This legacy continued through grandson Aelthelstan, the first King of England from 927 to 939, who claimed control of Northumbria and submission from the Scots, Welsh and remaining Britons. Aethelstan centralised government, expanded the reach of the law, founded places of religion, (his personal psalter, a pocket gospels, is on display), and got stuck into European politics. So there you are little Englanders. Even when little England first became a reality we were tied to that pesky Europe. It will never go away whatever you may think. BTW, in my final, I promise, “look at me” moment in this post, I walked past the very spot where Aethelstan was crowned not a few hours ago. Outside the police station in Kingston-upon-Thames. I kid you not.

So no surprise that I took a long look at the Council of Kingston document in the exhibition which dates from 838 and confirms the alliance between Ecgberht, Alfred’s grandad, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The beautiful Stockholm Codex Aureus, on loan from, er, Stockholm, will also detain you but it is the famous historical documents, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Asser’s Life of King Alfred, the treaty between Alfred and Guthrum the Dane, a translation from Alfred himself and the Foothill Letter from the early 10th century, the oldest letter in the English language, that require careful examination. History. Boring. Think again.

Highlights of the next room, the self-explanatory Language, Learning and Literature, include the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf, the greatest Anglo-Saxon literary relic, the Junius Manuscript, 1000 lines of Old English verse, the Old English Hexateuch, the first six books of the Bible and the Old English translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. If your interest extends to natural sciences, medicine and mathematics then you will be fascinated by this section.

The next room, Kingdom and Church, is focussed on the elevation of the Church under King Edgar, Alfred’s great-grandson. The highlight here comes at the end with the display of the Utrecht (825), Harley (first half 11th century) and Eadwin (c. 1150), Psalters displayed side by side. Seeing how one was copied into another into another is just amazing. Prior to this though the room is stuffed full of dainties, notably the Benedictional of Aethelwold from the 970s, the Vespasian Psalter from the second quarter of the eighth century, (the earliest Biblical text in the English language), the Boulogne and, especially, Trinity Gospels and the Winchester Troper.

The final room, Conquests and Landscapes, looks at the return of the Danes under Cnut and then the Norman Conquest, culminating with the BL’s Domesday Book and a short video.

I could go on and on but no purpose would be served in this. I have my catalogue accompanying the exhibition and can safely say, as one who regularly purchases such items, (and doesn’t always look at them immediately), that this is one of the most informative, involving and attractive I have ever seen. Even the short exhibition guide is a mine of information and the notes to the exhibits themselves could not be clearer.

All in all, and given the potential bone-dry bear-trap of a subject, early English history, and exhibits, in a word books, (though there is, as I said, plenty of other material on show here), this is a triumph. Maybe not enough to persuade those for whom history and manuscripts are anathema but if you have any interest at all, from any angle, don’t hesitate. No need, as ever with these things, to dutifully read every note or take in every exhibit. But if you can’t find at least a few items that command your attention I would be amazed.

It is on until 19th February. Usual rules apply. First thing in the morning. Sunday afternoon or the later slots on Tuesday when this opens until 8pm. And avoid the last week.

English Chamber Orchestra: Vivaldi at Cadogan Hall review ****

English Chamber Orchestra, Choir of the C21

Cadogan Hall, 2nd December 2018

Raphaela Papadakis (soprano), Lotte Betts-Dean (mezzo-soprano), Stephanie Gonley (violin), Caroline Dale (cello), Harry Winstanley (flute), Michael Collins (conductor)

Antonio Vivaldi

  • Gloria in D RV 589
  • Concerto for Violin in F minor, ‘Winter’ from The Four Seasons, Op 8 No 4, RV 297
  • Concerto for Violin in E flat major (La tempesta di mare), Op 8 No 5, RV 253
  • Concerto for Violin and Cello in B flat major, RV 547
  • Concerto for Flute in D (Il gardellino), Op 10 No 3, RV 428

Vivaldi now is generally the preserve of the specialist Baroque ensembles. With audiences to match. Don’t get me wrong. If you want to hear a performance of the Four Seasons in London and aren’t too sniffy about who performs it you won’t have long to wait. Gloria may not be up their with the Faure or Mozart Requiems or Allegri’s Miserere in the popularity stakes but it still gets a fair few outings. Beyond that though if you, like me, crave repeated fixes of Vivaldi then you normally need to wait for the experts to visit. I can see why Vivaldi’s vast and exquisite output has been hijacked by a just a handful of his pieces. And I can also see why, a la Stravinsky, there are so many classical music buffs who airily dismiss Vivaldi as a lightweight, one-trick pony, before they return to their Wagner or some such other turgid dross.

Well let me tell you they are wrong. I can’t pretend an encyclopaedic knowledge of the RV’s and anyway life, literally, would be too short to “know” all of AV’s music, (even now that so much has been recorded by specialists). The cantatas, much of the sacred music outside the familiar and of course the operas, (with their risibly stereotypical plots) are unknown to me. None of this matters though since Vivaldi’s music is so immediate, so deceptively, but rarely actually, simple that even on the first listen it can be enjoyed. Which means all you need to do, (look away now buffs), is grab some cheap, web regarded collections and switch on your shuffle. Result. Life enhanced. Simple really.

So this all Vivaldi bill by the ECO, under conductor Michael Collins, caught my eye. A Gloria, a Winter, a couple of the best concerti, for respectively violin and flute, outside of you-know-what and then a comparative rarity, one of the handful of double concerti scored for violin and cello. From a chamber ensemble with a fine pedigree; remember their first Patron was Benjamin Britten and some of Britten’s finest recordings of his own music were made in partnership with them. They are not though, and this is in no way intended to be disparaging, experts in the Baroque. In fact they are one of the most versatile of orchestras anywhere on the planet. Look at their immense list of recordings. They will even do weddings. Though it helps if your names are Harry Windsor and Megan Markle.

The Choir of the C21 led by Max Barley is a similarly broad, though still top drawer, church. Our soloists for the Gloria were well matched soprano Raphaela Papadakis and mezzo Lotte Betts-Dean with ECO principals Stephanie Gonley and Caroline Dale taking the instrumental leads along with young flautist Harry Winstanley. Now I can’t pretend that these performances were up there with the best of the Vivaldi interpreters I have heard, La Serenissima under Adrian Chandler, the Concerto Italiano, the Venice Baroque Orchestra, Brecon Baroque and Gli Incognito, but they were still very enjoyable. Especially in the Gloria.

I was particularly taken by the double concerto where Stephanie Gonley and Catherine Dale’s familiarity paid dividends, This is one of only four concertos for this coupling of which one is incomplete. The Allegro comprises arpeggio figures which begin in the ripieno before being taken up by the soloists, offset with more lyrical passages. The slow movement is a conversation between the soloists a la Bach and the final pacey allegro offers more virtuoso opportunity against a triple rhythm accompaniment.

The flute concerto, No 3 of the six which make up Op 10 was likely published in 1728. A cardellino or gardellino is a goldfinch, a popular caged bird in Vivaldi’s Venice, (and in Golden Age Holland, as you will no doubt know from Carel Fabritius’s exquisite painting in the Mauritshuis in The Hague and which inspired Donna Tart’s ambitious novel). The goldfinch often crops up in Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child, the little fella symbolising the foreknowledge that mum had about her son’s eventual gory death. No such iconography here though, for Vivaldi the relevance was the wee bird’s song. The tweeting is most obvious in the last movement which allows the flautist to develop ever more extravagant virtuosic tweeting. The first movement isn’t quite so ornithological with the flute offering trills, runs and staccato repeats more in counterpoint to the bouncy riternello dance. The fast movements sandwich a lilting cantabile into which tousle-haired Harry injected a surprising quote of lyricism.

Vivaldi was quite keen on stormy seas. RV 433 is a La tempesta di mare for flute and RV 570 a Concerto grosso with the same sub-title. RV 253 is the violin concerto equivalent, part of the Op 8 twelve titled the Contest Between Harmony and Invention of which the first four are the Seasons. No surprise I guess for a Venetian with a view from the Ospedale della Pieta out over the lagoon to the Lido and beyond to the Adriatic. Now I happen to think that there is as much in the other 8 concertos as there is in the Four Seasons, certainly in terms of tunes, if not in pure rock ‘n’ roll theatricality. An original score for 253 survives in Dresden, probably brought by JG Pisendel the violinist when he returned from studying with Vivaldi. Pisendel was the man who introduced Vivaldi’s music to JS Bach. Diamond geezer.

253’s fast movements are marked Presto not just Allegro so they need to be quick. The central Largo is the three minutes or so of relative calm though even at the end the storm is plainly on its way back. Both storms call for seemingly never-ending (well a few minutes) of descending figurations, the last set against a sort of dotted fanfare rhythm, the first even more frantic arpeggios against a scrubbing ritornello. I enjoyed Stephanie Gonley’s rendition but you probably also need to hear this played at more extreme tempi from one of the big-boned Italian outfits with, say, Federico Guglielmo or Giuliano Carmignola in the hot seat. Same is true of 297 Winter (which has that bit of summer in it just like Summer often feels a bit wintry).

Before the Gloria we were treated to a burst of medieval carol arrangements to beef up the festive quotient. At least those of us not underneath the gallery, where the choir was located, were treated. Still a nice touch. (Now as it happens I have a jolly collection of medieval carols, songs and chants from Pro Cantione Antiqua and the English Medieval Wind ensemble on CD I can recommend). It was as much as MSC and I could do to stop MS popping upstairs and joining in for he is the expert on all things Black Death to the end of the War of the Roses.

I am not actually sure if MS and MSC had heard a recording of the Gloria before but this was certainly their first Vivaldi gig. It is simply not possible for anyone raised in the culture of Western musical tonality not to like Vivaldi’s Gloria. Unless they are dead. And even then it will be on most of the playlists in heaven I would guess. Were that, Pascal’s Wager style, to actually exist. Anyway MS and MSC seemed to like it unless there were being their usual polite selves when it comes to their overly solicitous Dad/Future-Father-In-Law.

The Gloria was composed around 1715 for the residents of the Ospedale. They probably drafted in a few blokes for the tenor and bass lines. The young women of the Ospedale were prodigiously talented, after all Vivaldi composed music for them that even today taxes the very best of musicians (especially for violin), but they probably couldn’t quite get to the gruffer end of the vocal scale. After Vivaldi died in 1741, impoverished after the failed attempt to set up shop in Vienna, the score of Gloria was lost and forgotten until being rediscovered in Turin in the late 1920s. It is a setting of the eponymous section of the Latin Mass divided into twelve sections, all mercifully short and it is resolutely upbeat even as it contrasts keys, moods, tempi, instrumentation and voices.

It is perfect.

The Cardinal’s Musick at Wigmore Hall review ****

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The Cardinal’s Musick, Andrew Carwood (director)

Wigmore Hall, 27th September 2018

  • Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina – Motet Tu es Petrus, Missa Tu es Petrus, Gregorian Chant, Magnus Sanctus Paulus a 8
  • Giovanni Bassano – O Rex gloriae
  • Jacob Handl – Sanctus Bartholomeus
  • Thomas Crecquillon – Andreas Christi famulus
  • Tomás Luis De Victoria – Vidi speciosam
  • Francisco Guerrero – Virgo prudentissima
  • Sebastián de Vivanco – Magnificat octavi toni

More people should hand themselves over to the musicianship and scholarship of the best of British Renaissance vocal ensembles such as The Cardinal’s Musick or The Tallis Scholars or The Sixteen. Or, on those rarer occasions, when the best of their European cousins pop over. (Let us hope that isn’t made prohibitively difficult by the clusterf*ck that is Brexit though I suspect nothing would give greater pleasure to the never-happy social conservatives than watching us metropolitan liberals lose the opportunity to listen to such poncey, suspect singing).

Surely, it is impossible not to like complex polyphony sung by experts. Of course you could invest some time into learning about the composers of this ravishing music and the context in which it was created. As the canon of Renaissance music has expanded so too has our knowledge about those who created it, though biographical details are normally scant. Some vague-ish birth and death dates, a list of where they trained and what positions they held and what patrons they, (and by implication we), need to be grateful to. More often than not there is some detail in the careers of the most renowned of these men, (women got more of a look in in Medieval music and in the early Baroque, as we are now, thankfully, discovering), which marks them out as tricky in some way. Often over what they got paid. You would think the aristos and the Church would have been happy to pay up for art of this quality. Clearly not.

There are now a wealth of recordings of the (largely) French, Flemish, English, Italian and Spanish masters and the repertoire is still expanding. However, given the relatively limited number of performances and performers it is still likely that the casual listener/attendee, like yours truly, will encounter something new at every concert. The scholars and musicologists that lead the way still have plenty to play with I gather, so the sense of exploration and novelty that pervades Renaissance music performance, even though we are now well into the sixth decade of “rediscovery” since the first ensembles set out, isn’t about to end. I assume devoting your life to this sort of caper isn’t a way to make a lot of money but I hope that the economic ecosystem is robust enough to underpin such vocation.

You could also seek to understand when, why and how these pieces were performed. I guess having some sort of faith would be a good starting point for grasping the meaning of the religious works, but I also think it is perfectly possible for the irreligious to take something from the words and purposes of the texts. Even if all the rules of Christian liturgy and its founding myths remain a bit fuzzy you will certainly learn a lot about the political, religious and social contexts in which this works were created.

You might arm yourself too with as much knowledge as you can about the musical forms and structures which define this music. Sacred and secular, masses and motets, madrigals, modal and tonal, the way in which the vocal parts are put together, parody, imitation, suspensions, homophony, antiphony, plainsong, cantus firmus, dissonance, dyadic counterpoint. I can’t say I am there yet but some of the terminology is staring to fall into place. And remember folks the Tourist is, by virtue of a grotesquely painful singing voice, unable to perform, a source of eternal shame, and, by dint of what his music teacher at school was wont to call “tone deafness”, in a time before such educational derogation was outlawed, an utter inability to “read” notes on a page, only a consumer, and not a producer, of music. At the time I gloried in Mr Vaughan-Williams’, (I kid you not, but I am pretty sure he was no relation), disapproval. Now I really wish I had listened to him. Mind you I still take pride in being booted out of RE on a couple of occasions, for, and I swear this is no malleably manufactured memory, arguing with the teacher whose name I forget about the existence of God. Calling me a “long-haired jessy”, however apt, only served to fuel my nascent atheism I am afraid.

Anyway, you could learn all you can about this glorious music. Or you could, as frankly I normally do, let it wash over, and through, you. You know the thing where you forget about everything but the now, mind empties, body relaxes, free of the grinding anxiety of what has happened or what might be about to happen? To get it you can, I suppose, teach yourself, or get some-one to teach you, some sort of mindfulness mumbo-jumbo. Or you could just listen to Palestrina or Victoria. I promise it will work. After all it was written for exactly that purpose. To lose yourself in devotion. So piggy-back off that and get yourself along to one of these concerts. Close your eyes and let the voices take over.

Here endeth the lesson.

 

Holy Sh!t at the Kiln Theatre review ****

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Holy Sh!t

Kiln Theatre, 19th September 2018

Their exclamation mark not mine. Even at my age I get a vicarious thrill out of swearing to cause offence. A little bit of punk attitude remains I like to think.

Actually, on the subject of manufactured offence, I gather there have been picket lines outside the newly re-opened Kiln Theatre objecting to its change of name. Really? Like the Tricycle wasn’t a bit of a daft name to begin with. Maybe if the artistic team, led by the redoubtable Indhu Rubasingham, had ditched some connection to the building’s history, the Foresters’ Hall, I could see the point, but the original Tricycle didn’t even start here. Anyway what we now have is an absolutely wonderful space. The Kiln, in terms of design, comfort and facilities, has easily catapulted itself into the leading local, large, fringe theatre in London. All the scaffolding bric-a-brac of the interior is gone, sight-lines  are optimal upstairs and downstairs, leg-room is good, seats plush and wide enough for the Tourist’s ample rear. The performing space is intimate yet airy, as are the bar and restaurant, with the main entrance now matching the box office side. Staff tip top friendly as ever. The SO loved it, even convincing herself that the trek to urban Kilburn was “easy”.

And if Holy Sh!t is anything to go by, this season is shaping up to be one of Ms Rubasingham’s best. I like the look of the next two productions, White Teeth (based on the Zadie Smith novel) and Approaching Empty, and the new season, just announced, has such goodies as the UK premiere of Florian Zeller’s The Son (Zeller was a Tricycle “discovery”), Inua Ellams (Barber Shop Chronicles) latest work The Half God of Rainfall which sound bonkersly ambitious, Wife, connected with Ibsen’s Dolls House, which also looks similarly progressive, and When the Crows Visit, this time with Ghosts as an inspiration, and which looks set to add to a fine run of plays bringing modern India to the London stage. Oh, and if that weren’t enough, Sharon D Clarke in a blues musical revival. If you haven’t see her in Caroline, or Change, reprising at the Playhouse Theatre, then you are, I am sorry to say, a ninnyhammer.

I only know writer Alexis Zegerman from her role in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky but she can plainly wield a pen. Now I can see why some might think Holy Sh!t is a little overwritten, It identifies, and then takes aim, at its target demographic, and I mean target in both senses here, and doesn’t let go. Two couples, web designer Sam Green (Daniel Lapaine) and journalist Simone Kellerman (Dorothea Myer-Bennett), and teacher Nick (Daon Broni) and marketeer Juliet Obasi (Claire Goose), are forty-somethings whose friendship is put the test when they “compete” to get their daughters into St Mary’s, a North London Church school. Sam and Simone are liberal Jews though Sam now professes atheism, Nick is of Nigerian descent and Juliet is happy to turn up her Catholicism dial when it suits. The play starts off with a little too much forced exposition but once it gets into its stride, and moves beyond the par for the course comedy of manners, it doesn’t hold back using the four characters ethnicity and religion to expose the hypocrisy and prejudice that lie beneath their cultural liberalism as well as the lengths they will go to to protect themselves and their children.

I can’t pretend it is subtle, at times everyone gets a bit hysterical and the set-ups test credulity, but it does have killer line after killer line which left us (the SO agreed) hooked. It is the accumulation of well observed, and often funny, detail that made us forgive some of the crasser ploy mechanics. By the end, when Nick delivers his powerful rejoinder to the perceived victimhood of the other three, I did care about these people even as I recognised the forced stereotyping in their creation. Ms Zegerman has packed a lot of observation into the play, which is after all a comedy, and if some of it lands a little too heavily I didn’t object. I was still royally entertained. There is a whiff of Yasmina Reza about Ms Zegerman’s writing; you know you are being guided a little too forcefully down the corridors of her imagination but there is more than enough to see and enjoy along the way.

Ms Rubasingham’s brisk direction helped ensure the comic energy wasn’t dissipated whilst still making the points and Robert Jones served up pitch perfect (and flexible) aspiring metropolitan interiors. Dorothea Myer-Bennett was the standout performer the last time I say her at the Orange Tree (The Lottery of Love at the Orange Tree review ***) and once again she edges it. She captures Simone’s air of brisk certainty which contrasts with Claire Goose’s (Twitstorm at the Park Theatre review ***) more hesitant character. At first it is a little hard to believe they would be university friends but, as the tension escalates, their dependency does become more convincing. Daon Broni, who we last saw in the somewhat underpowered Slaves of Solitude, (Slaves of Solitude at the Hampstead Theatre review ***), was the most sympathetic of the four with Daniel Lapoine, (last seem by me in The Invisible Hand on this very stage), probably the actor who suffered the most from having to pull all of Sam’s traits into a believable whole.

So a production definitely worth seeing in a theatre definitely worth seeing. The first of many to come I’ll wager.

Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout at St Luke’s Old St review *****

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Isabelle Faust (violin), Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpsichord)

LSO St Luke’s Old St

JS Bach

  • Sonata no 3 for violin and harpsichord in E major BWV 1016
  • Partita no 2 for solo violin in D minor BWV 1004
  • Sonata no 1 for violin and harpsichord in B minor BWV 1014
  • Toccata for harpsichord in D minor BWV 913
  • Sonata no 6 for violin and harpsichord in G major BWV 1019

The second instalment in Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout’s rendition of the six JSB violin sonatas BMV 1014-1019 following on from the Wigmore Hall in April. (Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout at Wigmore Hall review ****). Once again they allowed themselves a solo each, but this time some more JSB, in keeping with the Bach Weekend theme, which also celebrated the 75th birthday of the venerable Sir John Eliot Gardiner.

This time I was joined by Bach groupie MSBD. Early start. 11am on a Saturday. I wish every day started this way though.

At times JSB is truly sublime. More so that any other composer. You might find it in the cantatas, others in the masses or passions, or maybe the keyboard, instrumental ensemble works or the cello suites. Not for one moment could I disagree with you but, for me, the apotheosis of JSB’s genius lies in the violin sonatas and partitas, solo and accompanied. Great art induces a state of rapture. Not the nonsense exclusive coach trip into the sky that some befuddled Christians cling on to, but the state of grace, individual or collective, that you can feel inside your whole being when dancing in a club, or breathless and motionless in the theatre, or when your ear sends pure sound to your brain at a concert or when you get lost in a painting. It doesn’t happen much, just as well as that might overwhelm, but it is part of what makes life worth living. I appreciate that this might be a terribly old-fashioned way to think about art but I dare you to tell me I am wrong.

Anyway it happened here. In the final movement of the Partita. The immense Ciaconna. Amongst Bach’s finest creations as the programme says. They’re not wrong. It gets me most times but here, OMG, Isabelle Faust, her violin, St Luke’s, my ears, my brain, the audience, and of course, old JSB all came together as one. This old buffer did his best to hold back a tear. It is so simple, just a basic four bar pattern, (apparently “the harmonisation of a descending tetrachord” – thanks again programme notes). But JSB is able to do so much with it including a huge mood shift about two thirds of the way in. This is when you might just believe that JSB reconciles himself to the early death of first wife Maria – he was to meet Anna just a year later.

The accompanied sonatas came close to their solo cousins. I have banged on before about just how expressive Isabelle Faust is when it comes Baroque violin. She’s pretty handy too when it comes to the rest of the canon. Listen to her recordings of the Beethoven, Bartok and Berg concertos if you don’t believe me. She can even persuade me with her historically-informed interpretations of that Mozart chap. But Bach is where she enters a different realm. She applies an astringent, almost abstract, rigour which just blows me away. And KB, who has a gentler conversation with his harpsichord, is the perfect accompanist. IF doesn’t muck it up with unnecessary and unwarranted vibrato, and both the left and right hand lines for KB are clear and not jangly. This leaves plenty of room for the sonatas to breathe and, in the superb space that is St Luke’s, with the sun streaming in from outside ….. well you can see where I’m coming from.

JSB continued to revisit and buff up the six sonatas throughout his life. Maybe that’s why the old boy perfected his art here. In the early decades of the C18 the trio texture was considered the compositional ideal for chamber music, creating a perfect synthesis of linear counterpoint, full-sounding harmony and cantabile melody, (thanks once more programme notes). Put this trio principle into the hands of the man who got closer to the ideal of perfect harmony than anyone else in the history of Western music, with the melodies driven by the finest of instruments the violin, then obvs it was going to work. JSB created trio works for flute, viola da gamba (which I like) and organ but they don’t come close.

Listen to No 1, BMW 1014. It kicks off with a 5 part texture with double stopping and a 3 part effect on the harpsichord. The two quick movements, (the first 5 sonatas stick to the old skool sonate di chiesa four movement set up with No 6 breaking free into 5 movements), have each of the three lines chipping in together, the perfect realisation of the trio principle with the third movement switching to violin and harpsichord right hand weaving around a left hand bass. No 3 BMW 1016 kicks off with a slow movement where both players can show off their skills, followed by a bouncy fugue, a powerful lament in C sharp minor before rounding off with an extraordinary gallop where the violinist can really show off. No 6 BMW 1019, is very different, with a central solo harpsichord movement flanked by two jolly giant Allegro opener/closers (real faves) and two slow, simple (-ish) shuffles in a kind of canonic form.

Other than the aforementioned divine Ciaconna the Partita No 2 consists of 4 dance movements, an Allemanda, a Corrente, a Sarabanda (which foreshadows the Ciaconna) and a Giga. We have Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Kothen’s Calvinism to thank for JSB’s discovery of all things boogie as he wasn’t confined to elaborate Church music in the Prince’s employment. (We also have the genius Antonio Vivaldi to thank for the twin graces of rhythm and repetition that underpin JSB’s unique ear for inventive sonority).

Other than the Sarabanda thsee dance movements are all monophonic in structure so easy to understand and have a dominant rhythm from which the violin goes off on ever more exciting harmonic excursions. It was a massive hit when first published and performed and remains so to this day. It really is very easy to see (and hear) why. You do not need to have any interest or understanding of classical music to get this. You just need ears and a pulse. So whatever your musical bag, I implore you to listen to it. IT WILL MAKE YOUR LIFE BETTER. I promise.

KB had a little less time to shine though not by much as he picked the most extensive of the six toccatas, BMW 910-916. The D minor 913 was composed when JSB was just 20 as he went AWOL from his job and walked the 450kms to Lubeck to hear Dieterich Buxtehude play. So next time you complain about how tricky it is to get to the Barbican think on JSB’s devotion. It opens with a typical Baroque improvisation, (typical for others that is), followed by a couple of JSB trademark fugues linked by a bridge which shifts tempo and ending with a tierce de Picardie, a major chord at the end of a minor key piece, which JSB was partial too. After the Partita and the first two sonatas this harpsichord piece shifted the mood before the final, jolliest, No 6 sonata. Smart programming and smart playing, (I only know these toccatas from the never surpassed Glen Gould on piano).

So there you have it. This will definitely be a top 10 2018 concert for me and I am pretty sure for MSBD, though I have lined up a few more for his delectation. And I wonder if, by the end of my musical education, I end up realising that no-one topped Bach. It is beginning to feel that way.

 

Tallis Scholars and Peter Philips at Cadogan Hall review ****

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The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips (director)

Cadogan Hall, 7th June 2018

  • Robert White – Domine, quis habitabit
  • John Sheppard – Missa Cantate
  • John Sutton – Salve regina
  • Robert White – Magnificat
  • Thomas Tallis – Spem in alium

I just cast my eye over an article in the Guardian purporting to list the best albums of 2018 so far. The Guardian has been my newspaper of choice since my teens. In a world of (too) fierce tribal-like identities it pays to read something you agree with. Or does it? Whatever, it is a reasonable bet that this list encompasses exactly the sort of contemporary music I should be listening to. I hadn’t heard any of it. I was aware of a few of the artists listed and I wouldn’t say I am completely immune to the music of today though the path I cut through it is both random and infrequent. But all of this was a mystery to me.

Now three decades ago I would have been all over this list like one of the cheap suits I own. And that millennial equivalent me would probably have scoffed at the very notion of Renaissance polyphony. Yet here I am, years later, near wetting myself at the prospect of listening to an expanded Tallis Scholars under their renowned leader Peter Phillips, perform Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium. As I suspect was the majority of the full house at Cadogan Hall.

So I say to my younger self, and any readers who are still in the prime of their cultural life, make damn sure you listen to this masterpiece as soon as you can. You could always try Janet Cardiff’s sound art installation, which takes a recording of Spem in alium, and puts in through 40 carefully positioned speakers, if it swings by you. Extraordinary. It might be in MOMA as we speak. Anyway add it to you cultural bucket list. And in return I promise to seek out a couple of the modern beat combo recommendations from the list referenced above and try to like them.

Now if you are Mr Phillips, and you have secured more than a couple of dozen fine voices to add to the 16 or so permanent members of the Tallis Scholars, you are not going to pass up the opportunity to programme some other, much rarer, large scale vocal works. Specifically here pieces from the Tudor period in England. Now we know a fair bit about Thomas Tallis’s (1505-1585) music, (if not his life), as we do his erstwhile pupil, William Byrd (1543-1623), because these two managed to snaffle a monopoly on publishing and printing music, sacred and profane, from Elizabeth I. This despite them both being (careful) Catholics. Control printing and you control prosperity, printing being as big a deal in the C15 and C16 century as t’internet is now. The other composers on this programme though were less fortunate, despite being as talented, surviving copies of their music being far rarer.

That is what makes this polyphonic vocal music so fascinating beyond the beauty of the modal scales, the harmonies and the thick, rich interweaved textures. It is the history behind it. The when, why and how it was created and the when, why and how it was preserved, and in some cases, rediscovered and brought to a new level of appreciation, in part through recordings as well as performance, in the last few decades.

For a vast swathe of this music was destroyed pretty much as soon as it was created. If it was Latin and liturgical then odds were some bell-end or other would shred or burn it in the Reformation, as one bunch of religious nutjobs asserted their half-arsed fantasies over another.

Thus the richest source of sacred music from the early Tudor period is contained in just three illuminated manuscripts, the Eton Choirbook, and the later Lambeth and Caius Choirbooks. The Eton Choirbook dates from 1500 or so, is incomplete, with 64 surviving works from 24 different composers. It tracks the development of polyphonic music in England from the five voice, non-imitative textures where contrast comes from voices dropping in and out, to the beginnings of imitation ,(a voice singing the same line a bit later), underpinned with cantus firmus techniques, (a sort of plainchant anchor normally from the tenor part), and the attractive dissonances conjured up by frequent false relations, (a chromatic contradiction apparently, two voices singing a different note simultaneously). The latest pieces in the Choirbook dump the cantus firmus, up the imitation and generally get more complicated and florid, “parodic” is the technical term, aping what was going on in the Low Countries, Italy and France. You see, dear Brexiters, even in the late 1400s England was being influenced by those funny furriners.

The earliest piece in the concert then was from this Choirbook, John Sutton’s setting of Salve regina, the liturgical highpoint of the Virgin Mary craze which, amongst many other things, is what makes Catholicism so weird. This is all we have of Sutton, and all we know is he was a Fellow at Magdalen College Oxford in 1478 and at Eton the following year. It is for seven voices, here doubled, and swirls around in very pleasing fashion, highly melismatic,  with points where all the voices mass together.

It wasn’t quite as powerful as the two pieces by Robert White (1535-1574) however. White was appointed to the post of organist and master of the choristers at Westminster Abbey no less, at the tender age of 32. Unfortunately he only managed another few years falling victim, as so many did, to one of the many outbreaks of plague in London. The first motet here, Domine, quis habitabit is a later Tudor psalm setting which White was particularly drawn to and involves three pairs of voices (again doubled here) delivering waves of imitative polyphony. The second White piece, a Magnificat, was an altogether grander affair which looks back to earlier styles. It is underpinned by long drawn-out plainchant divided amongst the voices, interspersed with long runs of melismatic melody. Apparently White employs gymel, the bifurcation of parts to add further texture. Who knew. Anyway I was much taken with this, probably my favourite other than the Tallis.

I was also mightily impressed by the Missa Cantate from John Shepperd (1515-1558). He is another chap about whom we know very little though PP and the Tallis Scholars have put some scholarship in to find out what they can. This work probably dates from the mid 1550s. The source for this “festal mass” is unclear but Shepperd clearly felt confident enough to revive the form with Mary on the throne and Catholic musical fol-de-rol back in favour. It is in six parts divided (doubled) into high and low sections which finally come together in the Gloria. It is very ornamental, with indulgent melisma stretching out the text so that you really get your money’s worth. The high parts divide at certain points to create the polyphonic wall of sound which we (in the hall) know and love especially in the Credo. Apparently Shepperd marked the score with the instruction “Sing!”. They certainly did. It merited the substantial applause prior to the interval.

The Tallis Scholars like their contemporaries the Sixteen are so good at what they do that you sometimes forget how difficult this all is to get right. I imagine hours of rehearsal and study are required to knock this into shape especially these rarer pieces. With Spem in alium though it is impossible to be so complacent as an audience member. as the  40 singers shuffle on you become aware just how tricky an undertaking this is. I count just 31 words in the Latin text and it clocks in at around 10 minutes. It kicks off by introducing the 8 choirs of 5 parts (SATBB) one by one, shifting motifs around the space through imitation before reaching the massive culmination. Then it reverses back through the choirs before the second coming together and then antiphonal pairs of choirs are created. How they all keep it together is a mystery and you are acutely aware that if this unravelled just slightly then the whole thing would go t*its up pretty sharpish with no hope of recovery. There nothing you can do but surrender to the cluster of swirling sound punctuate by moments of immense drama such as the silence and then key change post respice (look). Or you could try and focus on a few individuals and try to pick out their lines. Good luck though the flatter Cadogan Hall acoustic actually made that a little easier.

Now Tommy Tallis (that might be him above) wasn’t the only Renaissance man to conjure up a 40 part smash hit. Apparently an Italian fella called Alessandro Stroggio came on tour to London with his equivalent a few years earlier commissioned by the Medicis. When Tallis presented his effort to the Duke of Norfolk in 1570’ish, he apparently took off his gold chain and presented it to TT so overwhelmed was he. This could be nonsense though since the Norfolk was about to be executed by Lizzie I as a persistent Catholic plotter. Despite having lost all their titles and possessions on a couple of occasions and a few lurches in terms of inheritance the Norfolk title is still top dog in terms of the English aristocracy and still Catholic.

Spem in alium was sufficiently famous though to be used at the investitures of the Prince of Wales in 1610 and 1616 from when the first surviving manuscripts date. Every contemporary Renaissance vocal group has had a poke at recording it but I am happy enough with the recording by this very ensemble.

Since all 40 of the singers had turned up for work it seemed a shame not to let them off the leash again and so we were treated to an encore, the 12 part Regina Coeli by Nicolas Gombert. Not strictly Tudor but still a prime example of what was going on in the Low Countries at the time before the Italians took over led by Palestrina. Gombert, along with Adrian Willaert, was the master of the dense, highly imitative, almost contrapuntal, style, and here the shifts between voice groups, especially in the lower registers, were thrilling. No idea about the text but very happy to hear this.

Now I wasn’t going to keep this treat all to myself so BUD was happy to attend, and I spied a couple of other chums in attendance. For a certain poncey metropolitan elite type attendance here was mandatory. Like I say at the top though I really would  entreat you to find a way to hear this. It won’t change your life, it’s just music after all, but it will marginally enhance it.