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.

Time Stands Still: Aurora Orchestra at Kings Place review ****

Aurora Principal Players, Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Sally Pryce (harp), John Reid (piano), Nico Muhly

Kings Place, 23rd November 2018

  • Satie – Gymnopédie No. 3
  • Thomas Adès – The Lover in Winter
  • Nico Muhly – Clear Music
  • Debussy – Danse Sacrée et Danse profane
  • Brahms – Gestillte Sehnsucht
  • Nico Muhly – Old Bones (world premiere of ensemble version),
  • Nico Muhly – Motion
  • Thomas Adès – The Four Quarters
  • Dowland (arr. Nico Muhly) – Time Stands Still (world premiere)

A full house, moreorless, for a diverse programme of chamber music and songs anchored by (relatively) well known works from Thomas Ades and Nico Muhly, whose effervescent presence also graced the evening as performer, conductor and even compere. Oh and did I mention he “curated” the event. The evening was part of the year long Kings Place Time Unwrapped season now coming to an end with the pieces ostensibly linked through their meditation on, er, time and music from an earlier age. 

The musical backbone was provided by the graceful pianism of John Reid, with strings and clarinet from Aurora principal players, Alex Wood, Jamie Campbell, Helene Clement, Sebastian van Kuijk and Peter Sparks. Against this a number of the pieces showcased the unusual harmonies of the harp (Sally Price whose playing was certainly not backward in coming forward), celesta (John Reid again) and the ethereal countertenor of Iestyn Davies

There was a world premiere of a new chamber version of Old Bones, a song cycle about the rediscovery of the body of Richard III in a Leicester car park in 2012, (an event which also formed the opening sequence for the Almeida Theatre production of Shakespeare’s play with Ralph Fiennes in the lead). The arioso of Iestyn Davies was originally accompanied only by a lute, which can be discerned in the fragments of poems about Sir Rhys ap Tomas, the alleged killer of the king, which follows the news commentary intro. The momentum builds into a processional as the text, from Philippa Langley of the Richard III society, eloquently connects the infamous monarch to today.  

Muhly’s Motion for string quartet, clarinet and piano takes as its starting point a verse anthem from Orlando Gibbons, See, see the Word, and applies his trademark post-minimalism energy to Gibbons’s complex vocal counterpoint .

In contrast Clear Music is based on just a fragment of a John Taverner motet. Mater Christi Sanctissima, and is scored for cello. harp and celesta with the latter gifted an inventive solo part for an instrument normally reserved for adding orchestral colour. The texture doesn’t change and the piece is locked in a pretty high register, even in the cello line, but, as usual with Mr Muhly, he creates an engaging piece that doesn’t come anywhere outstaying its welcome. 

Thomas Ades’s Four Quarters from 2010 is a string quartet which takes as it subject the ebb and flow of time, in common with the TS Eliot Four Quartets, poems from which it surely drew inspiration. As usual Ades serves up all sorts of striking  sounds, a wide dynamic range rhythmic complexity, beginning with the eerie babble of Nightfall, followed by Morning Dew evoked through pizzicato, the steady pulses of Days and the astounding harmonic complexity of the last movement, the Twenty Fifth Hour, which is measured in an unusual 25/16 time.

The evening’s outstanding piece of me though was The Lover in Winter, written when Ades was only 18. It is made up of 4 very short songs, in Latin drawn from an anonymous text. It has a bleak, brittle, chilly feel, just chiming piano chords and Iestyn Davies’s exquisite countertenor, though the last song fails up the passion. Melismatic with candid word-painting. 

Mr Davies was also superb in Time Stands Still, a Dowland song which Nico Muhly has re-arranged. The melody is defined by the singer, based on an anonymous love song, with the whole band coming together to provide complementary but recognisably contemporary harmonies. 

The programme kicked off with John Reid in Satie’s ubiquitous piano waltz  Gymnopedie 3, blink and you’d miss it, as well as a helping of (to me) an unremarkable Brahms song and Debussy’s showcase for the harp with its “medieval” first part and  bouncy Spanish inflected second “profane” part. At the end we were treated to Messrs Muhly and Davies presenting an aria from Marnie, which has just finished at the Met, and which I bloody loved at the ENO.

For someone who I gather lives in NYC, Nico Muhly seems to spend a lot of time in London. No surprise that to the Tourist. Indeed he will be back at Kings Place on New Years Eve with the Aurora Orchestra. I can think of worst places to be. Mind you I do have a better offer for once. 

 

English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire review ****

Henry_Purcell_by_John_Closterman

English Touring Opera

Hackney Empire, 12th October 2018

  • Purcell – Dido and Aeneas
  • Carissimi – Jonas
  • Gesualdo – I Will Not Speak

I am partial to English Touring Opera’s productions. The repertoire tends to be up my street, with a bias to smaller, chamber and Baroque works, reflecting resources and logistics. Suits me. I can’t be doing with all that C19 showy stuff. Last year’s Giulio Cesare went on a bit, but that’s Handel for you, their take on Monteverdi’s Ulysses in 2016 was a corker, and I recall a Coronation of Poppea and Albert Herring a few years ago (before I kept track of stuff). And the Hackney Empire is like a favourite old aunt, if I had been born into circles that had such things.

This also was another opportunity to expand BUD’s opera education after the very successful Mozart forays, and the rather more muted reception to Britten. Now spare a though for the poor chap who is, like all the other economically productive people around me, working far too hard. When capitalism had the bright idea of separating work and leisure time, thereby ensuring we worked harder to make more money to spend in our ever decreasing leisure time, it cannot have foreseen just how clever the wheeze would be. Especially when so many of us are both labour and capital simultaneously. Anyway it meant that he was a little bushed and, with the Empire not too sure where to pitch the internal temperature in these climatic tipping point times, it was a bit close in the auditorium. I have put myself through many hours of training in London’s less comfortable venues so this was water off the proverbial, but even so I have to admit to skirting with drowsiness, notably in the Gesualdo.

Which is a shame, as in some ways, this was the most interesting of the three part programme. Director James Conway, and the eight soloists on stage on this evening (see below), tell the story of Gesualdo’s life, interspersed with various of the responses from his Tenebrae setting, a handful of relevant madrigals, poems by Southwell, Donne, Herbert and some other religious stuff. Now as you no doubt know Gesualdo had a bit of a temper on him and got himself in a bit of a tizzy with pain, agony, ecstasy, love, death, passion, blood, honour, violence, sorrow, religious fervour, torment, being forsaken and the like. And above all by guilt. That’s Catholicism for you. These texts captured all of that and more, being helpfully relayed through sur-titles. A dark, reflective set, atmospherically lit by candles, black costumes and some prudent choreography all helped the mood of the piece. Gesualdo, a dark presence in another, somewhat perplexing, recent entertainment I attended (The Second Violinist at the Barbican review ***), seems to exert a powerful hold on us devotees of early music.

I had bigged up all of the strange dissonances, out-there chromaticism and dark intensity which pervades the prince’s compositions, but as it turns out, BUD took it all in its stride. As did the Old Street Band, here under Jonathan Peter Kenny. Maybe they could have been a little wilder and more sympathetic to the text, and they seemed to me to be more comfortable in the Purcell and especially the Carissimi, but overall, this “I Will Not Speak” is not to be missed if Gesualdo floats your boat.

Giacomo Carissimi was an important chap in the development of vocal music in Europe in the early Baroque, and the dominant player in Rome. He was all over motets and cantatas but he really excelled in the oratorio, basically inventing the form. He was to religious choral music what Cavalli was to opera. (I appreciate that only in very limited circles will that mean anything at all). His big break came when he was appointed chapel master at Collegium Germanicum, a Jesuit bastion of the Counter-Reformation, in his early 20’s where he stayed for the rest of his life.

Now think of an oratorio as a biblical opera without action. Mind you here we got a bit of staging courtesy of designer Adam Wiltshire and the excellent lighting of Rory Beaton and some stylised choreography. You probably know Jonas by his more common moniker of Jonah, so I won’t bore you with the detail of the story. Naughty Niveveh-ians up to no good. God to Jonah “sort them out”. Jonah runs away. Storm. Sailors chuck him overboard. Unpleasant fish/whale belly short break gets just one star on TripAdvisor. Big belch. Washed ashore. God sends him back to Nineveh. This time they promise to be better. Thanks merciful God. Jonah throws a hissy fit and he and God have some sort of “my job is worse than yours” tiff.

So all the standard “behave yourself or else” merciful/vengeful God parable stuff. What is interesting is the way Carissimi employs really quite simple musical structures, (and dumps the last part), to bring the words to life and to convey the silly/substantial story, (depending on your point of view). And he really doesn’t hang about. It’s all over in 20 minutes. Put this, and his more famous Oratorio Jepthe, on one CD and there’s still space for a filler. Now it is made up of some fairly dryish recitative, but there is enough solo melody, some duets and trios, and small chorus, as well as instrumental breaks (sinfonias)  to add flavour, and to show why he became such an influence on later composers notably Charpentier. Don’t expect the funky mash-ups and luscious chromaticism of Monteverdi, this is straight-laced by comparison, but it is very effective and very moreish. It shows just how the voice and instruments could be combined in the service of drama in a way that the barrage of sound that was the polyphony of the previous century never could.

Of course this all went up a notch, actually well past 11, three decades later when the boy wonder Purcell gifted the world the score of Dido and Aeneas, the ill-fated lovers from Carthage and Troy. There is his cherubic little boat at the top. It is an undeniable fact that Purcell’s opera, with Nahum Tate’s libretto, lacks a bit on the plausibility front. Dido works herself up into a right lather, for no good reason, at the prospect of her bloke going off to war. I guess you could argue she is emotionally damaged, maybe even depressed, from the off, but that requires an awful lot of intellectual back-filling.

For this we probably have to thank the forces of anti-Catholic propaganda. No camp sorceress in Virgil’s original remember so Tate fiddled with plot in his play, The Enchanted Lovers,  on which the libretto is based to curry favour with the Court. And why not? They had to earn a corn.

There are also a fair few tonal shifts, with plenty of upbeat numbers amongst the tragedy and an ambivalent approach to Dido’s virtue. All of this perhaps reflects its genesis in a country where the masque, and plays, pre and post the Restoration (for which HP wrote lots of music), were been the dominant dramatic forms. Merrie Olde England, always wary of those suspect Continental innovations, like opera. This ETO production, which I have to say looks superb, thanks to the aforementioned Messrs Wiltshire and Beaton, is set in Jacobean times, think Dowland and later Shakespeare, several decades before the opera was first performed and a time when melancholy (cue our mate Gesualdo) and magic (James I wrote books on it) were all the rage. Worked for me. The staging I mean, not the belief in the spirit world.

Who cares about the structure though with music as ravishing and so perfectly matched to the voice as this. Which is after all what Purcell was all about. Now I can’t lie. I can only take so much singing in classical music. So all those odes, anthems, hymns and songs, whilst attractive enough on first listening, do fade a bit from memory. And, to be fair, I couldn’t tell which suite, fantasy, trio sonata, overture, air, minuet, blah, blah, blah is which in HP’s oeuvre. But what I do know is pretty much anything you will hear by Purcell will provoke an immediate, and very direct, response. I cannot be doing with the “genius touched by God” theories of artistic accomplishment but it is hard to deny some composers just “had it”. Everything just makes sense from the first listen of the first bar. HP was one of them. (Mind you living just down the road from Westminster Abbey and having a musically well-connected uncle probably came in handy). There are those who would have you endure a world of maximalist complexity in order to render you worthy of “appreciating” “Classical” music. Ignore them. Rhythm and the dance is where it’s at.

So this, his only “proper” opera, was his finest hour, literally. Like I say don’t dwell too much on the clunky dramatic devices and half-baked classicism and just listen to those amazing sounds. HP’s music can make fake emotion seem real. There are a few operas that people who have no interest in opera should go see and listen to. Dido and Aeneas is one of them. No need to change your view on the art form, I that a lot of opera is piffle, just don’t spend a life without this one. Without the music it is just nonsense, (though don’t blame the Greeks, it is the Renaissance trivialisation and prettification that is to blame). With the music it is transformed.

HP’s opera didn’t come out of nowhere, owing something to his bestie John Blow’s D and A and, more obliquely, Cavalli’s Didone (which also has a lament for dizzy Dido). HP may have delivered up what his conservative patrons demanded but he was aware of musical developments across the Channel even if he didn’t study there. After all, post Restoration, England was awash with French and Italian musicians, who brought us the Baroque bug. (You see Brexiteers, we have always benefitted economically and culturally from them furriners, even importing a few to sit on our throne if we didn’t fancy the home-grown alternative). Here Dido and Aeneas kicks off with your standard two part French overture and its best known tunes, including you know what with its stepping ground bass, are Italian style arias. HP delighted in gentle dissonance, splashes of chromaticism, sighing falls and minor thirds, all audible in Carissimi, amongst others. Yet he also favoured one of Tallis and Byrd’s gifts to the world, false relations, a “natural” note and its “sharps” played simultaneously.

HP, as far as I can tell didn’t live fast, but he did die young, maybe through TB or maybe, in a slightly more rock’n’roll way, after being locked out by his missus following a night on the lash. We in GB have always been convinced of his greatness, and our American cousins agree, but this may reflect the fact that we came up short on the composer front until, IMHO Benjamin Britten came along. BB obviously worshipped HP. So should you.

  • Susanna Fairbarn – Soprano
  • Alison Manifold – Soprano
  • Sky Ingram – Soprano
  • Benjamin Williamson – Countertenor
  • Jorge Navarro-Colorado – Tenor
  • Richard Dowling – Tenor
  • Nicholas Mogg – Baritone
  • Frederick Long – Bass

 

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.

 

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.

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.