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

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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.

 

Losing Venice at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

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Losing Venice

Orange Tree Theatre, 24th September 2018

A modicum of research was all that was required to realise that this was going to be a curious, but also intriguing, entertainment. Which is near enough exactly what it was. Jo Clifford’s play was a hit at the Edinburgh fringe when it first appeared in 1985. With its story of a great Empire now in decline, and its scrutiny of strict gender roles in society, it is easy to see why the OT’s Paul Miller was drawn to revive it. The play certainly chimes with key contemporary debates on Brexit and toxic masculinity, and Jo Clifford’s own personal journey makes it more absorbing, but it is, structurally at least, something of an acquired taste.

Tim Delap plays the Pedro Tellez Geron (1574-1624) the third Duke of Osuna, a military adventurer, who, after becoming Viceroy of Sicily, and then of Naples, for Golden Age Spain, plotted to conquer Venice. The plot was uncovered and Osuna subsequently fell from favour after Philip III’s death in 1621. Jo Clifford’s play teams the Duke up with Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas, (played by Christopher Logan), a poet and secretary to Queen Ana in the Spanish Court of Felipe II. He put himself about a bit, generally ruffled feathers and was one of the prime exponents of a dramatic writing style at the time known as Conceptismo, characterised by rapid rhythm, directness, simple vocabulary, witty metaphors and word-play. It prized multiple meanings and conceptual intricacies, in stark contrast to the ornateness of rival style at the time of Culteranismo. Both were obsessed with honour, reputation and chastity building on the sort of flummery that had bedevilled the world of secular culture for centuries prior.

Now knowing this, and that Jo Clifford had previously translated some of the greats from Spanish Golden Age theatre such as Calderon de la Barca, and you can begin to understand the structure of Losing Venice. For this to is a story with multiple meanings which moves rapidly across space and time and appears quite stylised. Ms Clifford sought to take a current (in the 1980s) sensibility on politics and gender and fuse it with this ostensibly “true” history with a contemporary (for 1618) dramatic style. Designer Jess Curtis in this revival has highlighted this synthesis with her costumes which mix the Golden Age with a 1980s post-punk, New Romantic look.

The adventures of the strutting Duke and affected Quevodo draw in other parties, servants Pablo (Remus Brooks), Maria (Eleanor Fanyinka), the rejected and oddly coiffed Duchess (Florence Roberts, also a Priest), Secretary (Dan Wheeler who also provides some music), the grouchy King (David Verrey) and the prosaic “Mr and Mrs Doge” (David Verrey and Eleanor Fanyinka again). A key role is that of the Sister here played by Tia Bannon and not, unfortunately given the extra dimension this would have brought, the originally cast Josh-Susan Enright. Not that Ms Bannon didn’t try to fully commit, as did her colleagues, to the play. It is just that it is so striking in tone that I wasn’t entirely clear just how “inside” the characters Paul Miller wished them to be. The knowing, and sometimes farcical, tone, the sense that the performers, indeed the whole play, was “looking into” the events as a metaphor or lesson for something else, the decline of Empire and the desire of boys to always go fighting, didn’t completely take over, such that it could just be read as a rapid, and somewhat bitty, and increasingly odd, history play, (where I would guess most of the audience didn’t know the history).

Still once you adjusted to this idiosyncratic form there was stuff to savour and it didn’t drag on, even giving us an interval to ponder what was going on. The Duke doesn’t really do consequences, is locked in the past, sees everything as a contest and takes vanity to extremes. His fading libido is conjoined with that of his country. All in all a prize dickhead not unlike a few of our current crop of deluded politicians. Quevedo’s pen may be mightier than his sword but his fine words don’t necessarily resonate with his master and there are a whole heap of unbuttered parsnips here. The women and servants look on with various degrees of exasperation. Eleanor Mayinka stands out as the sympathetic Maria but maybe just because she is the most sincere character in the play.

So this might be a play whose novelty has played out, or it might be a play that was over-praised in the first place. Or maybe it is, as my Mum would have said, “too clever for its own good”. Or maybe it is a production where the normally very reliable Paul Miller couldn’t quite make up his mind. Or rather where he couldn’t quite pin down this slippery, and odd, fish. Or maybe, for once, the OT space was a hindrance not a help. I think it might be a little bit of all of these things but offsetting this is a spark of invention and bravado that I, for one, am always happy to see. Even if it didn’t quite come off, I can safely say I haven’t ever seen anything like it. And that it itself is no small praise. A counter to the excess of lazy literalism which pollutes the body politic is surely no bad thing.

The Second Violinist at the Barbican review ***

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The Second Violinist

Barbican Theatre 7th September 2018

Ok so I bought a ticket here on a bit of a whim and because it garnered some awards on its premiere in Ireland. Now I know from past experience that the playwright Enda Walsh is not a man who likes to give audiences an easy night out. Disco Pigs is a belter of a play (and film) but, in trying to unravel the darker psychology and psychoses of the everyday, he sounds to me like the sort of dramatist who can be guilty of putting himself above the audience. All well and good if you like that kind of modern Expressionism but if it fails to connect what’s the point.

Still YOLO. What I hadn’t bargained for is just how good a composer Donnacha Dennehy is. This has all the trappings of a chamber opera. Except that there is a fair bit of spoken word, long periods of neither speech nor singing, though plenty to attract the eye and a main character who never opens his mouth. Which means the score has a lot of work to do and doesn’t always precisely articulate with the drama. But it is a fabulous score. Strains of post-minimalism (he studied with Louis Andriessen) with lots of sustained strings, micro-tonality galore, overtones, buckets of dramatic orchestration, hefty percussive rhythms, electronics, nods to Irish folk heritage, odd harmonies. As a rule of thumb if contemporary classical music grabs me by the throat on first listen for me there is something worth investigating. If there is no connection it can be safely discarded. No idea why or what lies behind that decision but this chap is definitely going to have to be listened to.

Now as for the play/drama/libretto I am less sure. Martin (Aaron Monaghan), emerging from the pit, is a violinist currently rehearsing (badly) a chamber opera with an unhealthy interest in bad-boy Carlo Gesualdo, the Renaissance prince and composer who mastered dissonance (please listen) but was a bit unhinged to say the least. (there he is above). Martin is not a happy bunny it seems and there is plenty of evidence in his drinking, movement, his calls, game-playing and his digital footprint to show it. But he doesn’t show us directly. Instead we get a drunken night in from Matthew (Benedict Nelson), wife Hannah (Maire Flavin) and her friend Amy (Sharon Carty) who Matthew makes a move on. It doesn’t end well. Presumably this is an acting out of the events that got Martin into the pickle he is in. Or maybe they are the neighbours from hell that Martin really doesn’t need. At the end, in a wood, Martin meets Scarlett (Kimani Arthur) a Tinder chum. Oh and there is a chorus to vocalise some things and to shuffle across the stage.

Though frankly I didn’t really have a clue what was going on. For someone who was effectively a mime artist Aaron Monaghan, apart from some suspect writhing, caught Martin’s dissolution brilliantly. The three singers were crystal clear though their texts were prosaic. The set (Jamie Vartan), lighting (Adam Silverman), video (Jack Phelan) and sound (David Sheppard and Helen Atkinson), all seemed to have a lot to say. I just don’t really know what they were saying. If it was just the breakdown of a life then I suppose it delivered but since I couldn’t find a way in I couldn’t really care. Maybe Martin was looking for beauty in an ugly world, a creative mind that is constantly disappointing himself, (this seems to be what Enda Walsh is driving at in the programme), but any meaning was too impenetrable for me. Past, present and, maybe, future frustratingly elided.

Plenty to look at and a ravishing score but as a work of drama … hmmm. No matter. The score, which really did make the link back to Gesualdo, and the playing of Crash Ensemble under conductor Ryan McAdams alone was enough.

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.

William Kentridge: Smoke, Ashes, Fable at Sint-Janshospitaal review ****

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William Kentridge: Smoke, Ashes, Fable

Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges, 20th February 2018

Off to Bruges and Brussels for a couple of days. Main purpose. To soak up the best paintings that the Northern Renaissance has to offer. Now you all know that it doesn’t get much prettier than Bruges, (though Ghent may just top it). Which also means that it should be avoided like the plague during the high season. And it should never be insulted with just a day trip. Do not miss the Chapel of St Basil, the Gothic Hall in the Stadhuis, with its “Medieval” murals telling the story of the City from C19 artist Albrecht de Vriendt, and Frank Brangwyn’s drawings and etchings in the Arenthuis. Ooh and don’t be sniffy about taking a boat trip.

The main reason for going though is the art. Specifically the first two rooms of the Groeningmuseum. Go in February. Get there early and you might just have the rooms to yourself. Room 1 has the extraordinary diptych from Gerard David, The Judgement of Cambyses, a warning to dodgy politicians everywhere, and a Bosch Last Judgement. Room 2 though will take your breath away. Impossible to know which way  to look. Hans Memling, Petrus Christus, more David. Further on Adriaen Isenbrandt, Hugo van der Goes and Jan Provoost. And works of astounding beauty from unidentified masters.

Topping it all is Jan van Eyck’s, Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele. His greatest ever painting? I think so. Thus making it the greatest work of Western art ever. Swing your head round and you see his portrait of his missus Margareta. This must be the single best concentration of art in the world.

Of course you may hate this stuff what with all that religious mumbo-jumbo, preponderance of shiny things and “realism” that is anything but. You’d be a mug though.

In which case the Memlings in the ground floor of the Sint-Janshospitaal are also not going to do much for you. Shame. There are five astonishing works capped by the St John Altarpiece and Shrine of St Ursula. Take your magnifying glass. And see the fascinating videos which show Memling’s underdrawings and his immense skill as a draughtsman.

Or move on. For help is at hand. In the form of William Kentridge. Now I didn’t go specifically to see this carefully constructed collection of Kentridge’s recent work by curator Margaret Koerner. But it was fortuitous timing nonetheless. South African William Kentridge is one of the most renowned of the, how shall I put this, older generation of contemporary living artists. His work covers drawings, prints and sculpture, but he is probably best known for his animated films and for the installations that contextualise them. He makes charcoal drawings, which he then erases and changes, filming the results to create his glorious Expressionistic animations. His subjects are numerous, though history, language and justice are common themes, specifically in his native South Africa, from his perspective as a white Jew whose parents defended the victims of apartheid.

I saw the production of Berg’s Lulu at the ENO in 2016 which he directed and which bore his distinctive visual stamp. I can’t say I was enthralled by the results but that is largely because Alban Berg’s music, and specifically this opera, are works-in-progress for me. There are a number of great artistic statements that may confound or confuse me at first but which I know I should keep working at.. Lulu is one of them. It looked amazing though thanks to WK and the video crew.

I also saw the exhibition of Kentridge’s work at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2016 entitled Thick Time. Now, as in this exhibition, I can’t pretend I was persuaded by everything that Mr Kentridge creates. Yet even in the drawings and videos whose meanings are elusive to me, and there were a few here, there is something compelling which draws you in.

In Thick Time he created six installations the highlight of which, by far, was The Refusal of Time, a meditation on time and fate in which composer Philip Miller provided a hypnotic score to accompany WK’s videos and a “ready-made’ Leonardo-ish “breathing” machine. In Right Into Her Arms WK creates a sort of mini-theatre with a dance drama centred on the disappointment of desire I think. Seven Fragments for George Melies, Day for Night and Journey to the Moon imagined an artist embarking on a series of adventures and was the most obviously Expressionistic of the works with its allusions to early silent cinema.

Here in Smoke, Ashes, Fable the highlight undoubtedly is More Sweetly Play the Dance from 2015. First off it is set in the amazing upstairs room in the Hospital, a cathedral in wood. The works here have all been chosen to reflect the location, but this is the piece which is most evocative. It is based on a medieval Dance of Death. This is a medieval hospital. Across eight massive white panels WK’s charcoal drawing animations see a not quite monochrome processional emerge, drawn from the silhouette of his collaborators. A brass band plays a repetitive tune against this. It is both sombre and celebratory. This Dance of Death though will be more familiar to you from African funeral processions but the characters here seem very different. You literally cannot take your eyes off it and have to sit mesmerised watching at least one, (in my case three), revolutions of the procession. Most everyone there when I visited was drawn in and grinning from ear to ear. For, although this may portray the fragility of human existence, there is something immensely celebratory about the work. Marvellous.

Next door are a set of large scale tapestries which show the silhouettes of African figures, carrying day-today objects, set in maps from the C19. Lives literally carried on their shoulders, a comment on migration perhaps. Downstairs the exhibition opens with drawings and extracts from the monumental 600m long frieze Triumphs and Laments which WK created alongside the Tiber to tell the history of Rome in 2016. I really, really need to see that before it eventually fades away. The installation which titles the exhibition is a little more introspective but still intriguing.

Now I am not saying you should make a special trip to Bruges to see this exhibition, If only for the very good reason that it is now over. But if his work does find a home near you then you must find a way to see it. If you are anywhere near the Reina Sofia in Madrid right now you have just that opportunity in an exhibition centred on his excursions into opera. And later this year he has something cooking in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. There will be other stuff I am sure. Go.