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Andrew Carwood
23 Jul 2015

BBC Proms: The Cardinall’s Musick

When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.

BBC Proms: The Cardinall’s Musick

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Andrew Carwood

 

There was a sell-out audience for this first Chamber Music Prom of the 2015 season, at the Cadogan Hall in South Kensington, and the early music specialists The Cardinall’s Musick, directed by Andrew Carwood, delighted with a compelling performance of Latin and English motets and anthems by Tallis.

Fittingly, the Cadogan Hall began its life as a church.  Established in 1907 as a New Christian Science Church, a declining congregation led to its closure in 1996 but it was purchased by the Cadogan Estate in 2000 and re-furbished as a concert hall four year later.  Careful attention was paid to the environmental and performance acoustic during the refurbishment; and, if the resonance is not quite equal to that of the Reformation churches and cathedrals in which Tallis’s sacred compositions were first heard, the Cardinall’s Musick sang with full tone which reverberated richly, as they illuminated the diversity of Tallis’s vocal textures.  Noteworthy too was the way in which individual voices emerged from the polyphonic ensemble, as Carwood adeptly maintained an excellent balance between soloists and the collective.  His fluid, easy direction allowed the contrapuntal forms to evolve organically while sustaining forward momentum.  And, although the Hall seats 950 people, the ensemble managed to create a surprising intimacy, drawing the listener into the performance, the sensitivity and dignity of which reminded one of the original function of these compositions - to express and inspire devotion.

Cardinalls.pngThe Cardinall’s Musick

The opening work ‘Videte miraculum’ (the responsory for Candlemas) took a little while to settle, perhaps because of the strange dissonances which characterise its opening point of imitation and its frequent alternations between soloist, solo groupings and full choir.  But, the emergence of the unadorned chants between the choral sections were expressive and the multi-voice responses created energy as parts of the chant were repeated, blossoming in tone.  The motet ‘Suscipe quaeso’ developed from the solemnity of its narrow-compassed beginnings into a stunningly lavish, beautifully balanced rhetorical appeal, and the repeated questions of the second part were absorbingly insistent.  Perhaps there might have been more emphasis placed on the metrical and harmonic oddities of the brief ‘O nata lux de lumine’, though the concluding phrase was characterised by a beautiful simplicity and glow.  In the 5-part ‘O salutaris hostia’ the short melodic ideas developed with vitality.   The passing of the imitative motifs from the highest voice to the lowest created a sense of expanse, as the text expressed hope of heavenly salvation, while the intricate appeals for strength in the face of earthly enemies and woes in the latter part of the motet were elucidated with clarity, building to invigorating repetitions of the final phrase.  ‘O Sacrum Convivium’ was utterly compelling in the way that the close imitation built in intensity while still remaining airy and lucid. 

There were English anthems too, beginning with the 4-part ‘O Lord, give thy holy spirit’.  Here, I’d have liked a little more emphasis on the harmonic nuances which underscore the textual meaning.  However, the consistency of tone and intonation in the opening section of ‘Hear the voice and prayer’ made for a powerful entreaty, while the more extended sequential imitation of the appeal ‘That thine eyes may be open toward this house’ and the elision into the final prayer, ‘And when thou hear’st, have mercy upon them’, was persuasive.  ‘Why fum’th in fight?’ was one of the works that Tallis contributed to the Psalter prepared by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, in 1567, but is better known today as the melody of the work it inspired: Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.  The Cardinall’s Musick made the text dramatic, blending their voices beautifully, and the modal harmonies were powerfully expressive, stripped of some of the sentimentality which can colour Vaughan Williams’s work.

Contrast and complement was provided by another composition inspired by Tallis.  Though it takes its name from Thomas Wolsey (the Roman Catholic Cardinal and Lord Chancellor who rose to eminence during the reign of Henry VIII before falling from favour when he failed to satisfy the King’s political and matrimonial whims), the Cardinall’s Musick frequently turns its attention to music of its own day, and has given premieres of works by composer such as Michael Finnissy and Judith Weir.  On this occasion it presented the premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s ‘From the Beginning of the World’, a composition for 8 voices which takes it text from the ‘German Treatise on the Great Comet of 1577’ by Tycho Brahe (1546-1601).  Speaking in the Hall to BBC Proms presenter Petroc Trelawny, Frances-Hoad explained that she had looked for a text which was representative of Tallis’s age but also spoke to our own times: the Great Comet was interpreted as heralding an apocalypse, a sign of God’s displeasure at man’s sinfulness, but also as a sign of rebirth, an opportunity to repent: ‘It thus behoves us to use well our short life here on earth, So that we may praise him for all eternity’ - a message that Frances-Hoad suggested modern politicians, and indeed we all, might do well to remember.

The work pays obvious musical homage to Tallis, with its solo chant-like lines which bloom in melismatic and imitative expansion, its rhythmically complex and diverse responses to the English text, the use of the tritone to suggest the dark and satanic, and the employment of contrapuntal devices such as double canons.  It is an exciting and grippingly dramatic work, with its combinations of Latin and English text, and constant re-calibrations of the vocal groupings with solo exclamations, ‘Peccavi’ - ‘I have sinned’ - and questions, ‘But what do such unnatural births mean?’, demanding our attention.  There was also a strong sense of hope and regeneration, as with the suggestion that ‘Something new can be generated in the heavens’, a line in which strange, close dissonances expand in tessitura, blossoming in rich melisma and shimmering harmonies which stirringly evoke the celestial.  The Cardinall’s Musick were more than equal to the significant technical challenges, as soloists and as an ensemble: the intonation in the several unison and octave passages was excellent.  Carwood controlled the complexity and animation of the final phrases superbly, leading his singers to a swift but ecstatic close.

After such captivating and exciting text-setting, Tallis’s 40-voice motet for eight five-part choirs, ‘Spem in alium’, was a fitting conclusion to the concert.  The supplemented forces of the Cardinall’s Musick found an incredible richness and variety of sonority: the sense of spatial expanse, the fullness of resonance, the homogeneity of vocal tone, the rhythmic tautness and the overall vivacity and eloquence were inspiring.

Claire Seymour


Programme and performers:

Tallis: ‘Videte miraculum’, ‘O Lord, give thy Holy Spirit’, ‘Hear the voice and prayer’, ‘Why fum'th in fight?’, ‘Suscipe quaeso’, ‘O nata lux de lumine’, ‘O sacrum convivium’, ‘O salutaris hostia’; Cheryl Frances-Hoad: ‘From the Beginning of the World’ (world premiere); Tallis: ‘Spem in alium’. The Cardinall’s Musick. Andrew Carwood, director. Cadogan Hall, London, Monday 20th July 2015. BBC Proms: Proms Chamber Music 1.

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