Brecon Cathedral, 23 October 2016
A Birthday Feast
A celebration of Thomas Tallis
Singers: Rachel Elliott, Kate Hamilton, Miles Lallemant, Nils Giebelhausan, Julian Podger, Thomas Guthrie, Jakob Bloch Jespersen
Directed by Julian Podger
Fast forward a few weeks and this concert from seven singers of Trinity Baroque could have been entitled “A Christmas Feast”, for the music centres round celebrations of the birth of Christ. But there is no reason at all not to sing such music at other times of year, and it was certainly a feast for those of us who filled and overspilled the nave of Brecon Cathedral on the third evening of this year’s Brecon Baroque Festival.
Switching adeptly from the Baroque style of Purcell’s music in which they had all sung in The Fairy Queen on the opening night of the festival, the singers of Trinity Baroque brought the cathedral alive with the richness of Renaissance polyphony, focusing on the music of Thomas Tallis and some of his sixteenth century contemporaries. Wonderful as the music of the period is, there is a danger that it becomes a wash of sound within which it is difficult for listeners to distinguish texture and detail. Julian Podger’s programming overcame that danger by employing the singers in different groupings and by having them sing in different parts of the cathedral so as to use the different resonators of the space.
Assembling at the high altar, the singers opened the programme with Tallis’s six-part Advent motet Videte miraculum. A Gentleman of the Chapel Royal – the singers and composers serving the royal court of England – Tallis served four monarchs during his lifetime, and adapted to the switchback from Protestantism to Catholicism which this entailed. However he retained his Roman Catholic faith and expressed himself most passionately in his music when writing for the Catholic liturgy. In this opening motet Tallis set the words in such a way as to create a mood of calm and stillness from which the singers could come towards their audience. It is tempting to use the word congregation because, for all that this was not a religious occasion, it was an intent gathering.
O Lord in Thee was written by Tallis for congregational singing when Elizabeth I was on the throne. Different sub-sets of Trinity Baroque sang the different verses of this hymn, interspersed between sections of plainchant to the text of the Kyrie of the Mass, and moving towards us down through the choir of the cathedral until they came together at the crossing of nave and transept. At this geographical centre of the church they moved into the heart of their programme, the movements of Tallis’s Missa Puer natus est (A child is born). The acoustic served to amplify the sound as they sang the Gloria, its pulsing like the heartbeat of the building.
This Mass was written for Elizabeth’s predecessor, Mary Tudor, a Roman Catholic who required music in Latin. It was probably written for performance at Christmas in 1554. In the summer of that year Mary had married Philip of Spain and this music was possibly also intended to celebrate her supposed pregnancy. In the event she had no children and on her death the throne passed to her half-sister Elizabeth. Both were children of Henry VIII.
During the Renaissance liturgical practice was to intersperse the movements of a Mass with motets, but Jonathan Podger’s choice in this concert performance was to mix the sacred and the secular, and having taken that decision, what better complement and contrast to follow the Gloria than music by Henry VIII. If power had made him an arrogant and cavalier ruler he was also a poet and composer noted amongst his contemporaries. The evening’s programme concentrated at this point on the ‘feast’ element with the singers now on either side of the aisle and sharing out sections of Henry’s song Lusty youth, together with the an anonymous sixteenth century setting of Time to pass with goodly sport, such sport being all about sensual appetite.
Richard Pygott’s Christmas carol Quid petis, o fili is in a British Library manuscript orginally copied for the court of Henry VIII in the second decade of the sixteenth century, so would surely have been known to Tallis, as would the man himself, as for a period of some years they were both Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal. The Pygott carol is also interesting for alternating a Latin refrain with verses in English, again split between the singers.
Now the singers were again united, this time at the rear of the cathedral, for the seven-part Tallis motet Suscipe quaeso, probably written to accompany the Missa Puer natus est, and the first half of the concert ended on a crescendo of satisfying vocal intensity.
At the beginning of the second half the singers returned to the crossing to sing the Sanctus of the Missa Puer natus est followed by two secular songs from Flemish composers of the fifteenth century for, in each case, a trio of singers. Heinrich Isaac and Hayne van Ghizeghem are not composers of whom we hear much these days, but both were prolific and well-known in their time, and the slow-moving harmonies of their music had an influence on Tallis as his motet Homo quidam which followed demonstrated. The same words to plainchant and secular song from the sixteenth century followed – from male and female voices respectively at opposite extremes of the cathedral, before all seven singers came together again for the Agnus Dei of the Mass, the sonorities of which rang like the subdued tolling of bells.
In the final section of the concert we heard two of Tallis’s best-known motets, O sacrum convivium, which refers to the sacred feast of the Mass, and O nata lux. Heard in the context of the heft and magnificence of the movements of the Missa Puer natus est and the larger motets, the apparent simplicity of O nata lux, written for the feast of the Transfiguration, shone out like a gem from the high altar where the singers had once more gathered and radiated around the building. It was a glory. Calm returned with plainchant and the devotional motet Mihi autem nimis, but the evening ended with the only section of the Credo of the Mass which has survived, Et expecto resurrectionem. Here, in a change of mood and tempo, was a rhythmically complex ending, and one in which the music completely matched the hope expressed in the words.
These days there are very many excellent consort singers, and they deserve more recognition. I was so impressed by the way the singers of Trinity Baroque listened to one another and sang into the ensemble rather than out as individuals. This may sometimes be a subtle distinction, but it is a crucial one in relation to blend of sound and the life of the music. It was a delight to hear the smaller combinations of two, three and four and the range of tone colour they achieved. I was also most impressed by their attention to pronunciation, so as to produce sounds in keeping with the composers’ intentions. This was a truly remarkable programme of jewels from the vocal sound world of the Renaissance, so skilfully constructed and beautifully executed.
Header image courtesy of Trinity Baroque