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22 Dec 2015

Taverner and Tavener, Fretwork, London

‘Apt for voices or viols’: eager to maximise sales among the domestic market in Elizabethan England, publishers emphasised that the music contained in collections such as Thomas Morley’s First Book of Madrigals to Four Voices of 1594 was suitable for performance by any combination of singers and players.

John Taverner: Missa Gloria tibi trinitas; Sir John Tavener: Nipson for countertenor and viol consort; The Hidden Face for countertenor, oboe and viol consort. Fretwork, King's Place, London, 18th December 2015

A review by Claire Seymour



Applying the same principle to a work from the sacred repertoire, in the first part of this deeply contemplative concert at King’s Place the viol consort Fretwork performed John Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi trinitas, a Mass which was most probably first sung by the choir at Cardinal College (later Christ Church) Oxford, where Tavener was employed before 1530.

The transference from voice to viol seems apt for this Mass, which is named after the plainsong antiphon to the first Psalm at Lauds and Second Vespers on Trinity Sunday, actually generated a whole repertoire: many English composers, up to and including Purcell, based consort pieces on the ‘in nomine’ section of the Benedictus, for viol consort or keyboard. In this way it became one of the most influential works in the English repertoire. The Mass was also striking for its use of six voices, including a high treble, a combination perfectly suited to the wide-ranging tessitura of the different sized viols played by the members of Fretwork. And, it must be said, the glowing wood of their shapely instruments with their sloping shoulders and deep ribs, formed a beautiful visual image, arranged in a semi-circle and bathed in a subtle red glow.

Taverner’s Mass is florid and ornate, representative of the prevailing liturgical idiom of the 1510s and 1520s. Fretwork achieved a sensitive balance between the six strands, and the infinitely varied detail within each section of the four movements was clearly audible. The contrast between the full six-part passages and those for reduced parts generated interest, the latter often introducing highly ornamental and decorative gestures. The players’ phrasing was exquisitely graceful and unfailingly self-possessed, and the small motifs were skilfully extended into longer, sustained sequences; the music seemed to unfold organically and inevitably.

The two highest viols - representing the treble and mean voices - provided brightness and sweetness, the highest line dancing at times like a piping flute above the bed of sound. The chant which appears as a cantus firmus in the Mass - three times in the Gloria, Credo and Sanctus and twice in Agnus Dei - is sung by the mean voice (not the tenor, as is usual) and this placement, higher in the texture made the chant more audible, particularly when it was itself the uppermost line, tranquilly articulated while the lower viols busily explored the generating motifs below. Sometimes, however, as in the Credo, it was the bass’s vigorous movement which injected energy and passion. In the Agnus Dei the players seemed to adopt a firmer bow stroke, and once again the dynamism was driven from beneath. In contrast, the Sanctus gained strength from the reassuring quality of the repetitions of its motifs.

Towards the end of each movement, shorter rhythmic values created renewed momentum. However, though the viols’ smooth articulation was beguiling, the slight hollowness of the timbre could not generate the magnificence of massed choral voices in these climactic moments; there was much pleasure to be derived from the blended richness of the sound, but I regretted the lack of deep resonance.

In his CD liner notes for The Tallis Scholars’ first, 1984 recording of the Mass (Gimmell DCGIM 004), Peter Phillips suggests, ‘Taverner’s style of writing does not require the euphonious, seamless sound so often appropriate to the music of Palestrina and Byrd. The very length of this Mass recommends variety in its interpretation - as much of tempi and dynamics as of scoring; and the detail of the writing certainly supports this fundamental need for textual contrast.’

Here Phillips pins down the reasons for my own misgivings. For, while the tone beautifully subdued and mellow, and there was contrast of register, the timbre was essentially uniform. And, as the music was divorced from the text that inspired it, the ‘head motifs’ from which the phrases grow lacked a point of reference; seemed meditative rather than directly expressive. Indeed, the phrases might have continued evolving indefinitely, there seemed no logical structural stopping-points, such as a text might provide. For this listener, the overall effect was one of introspection and intimacy; players in an intimate domestic setting might gain much gratification from performing this music in this form, but I could not shake off the thought that the Mass was designed to communicate the glory of God.

In the second part of the concert, we moved forward almost five hundred years and Fretwork were joined by countertenor Iestyn Davies and oboist Nicholas Daniel for two works by Sir John Tavener. Nipson (1998) was composed at the suggestion of countertenor Michael Chance (and was recorded by Chance and Fretwork by Harmondia Mundi in 2002, on a disc which also includes The Hidden Face, with Daniel, and the Sanctus and Benedictus of Taverner’s Mass).

Tavener’s text is a Greek palindrome, "Nipson anomēmata mē monan opsin" (Wash the sins, not only the face), which is supplemented by Latin text. (The latter was not given in the programme, but I think I detected ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ and ‘Kyrie eleison’.)

Above the sustained, full texture of the viol ensemble, Davies’ voice was astonishingly compelling: sometimes light, almost floating and otherworldly, then swelling richly and penetrating the air with striking power. The voice’s melismatic wanderings contrasted arrestingly with the viols’ rootedness, though there were passages were there was more interplay between voice and accompaniment; in one such, the viols’ repeating strokes, articulated initially with airy bowing then gradually growing in impact, were impressively co-ordinated and structured. Davies demonstrated his warm lower register too, in an unaccompanied passage; indeed, in the concluding section where the influence of the Greek orthodox liturgy were readily evident, the music makes huge demands on the singer and Davies was able to negotiate the large leaps cleanly and securely, and to encompass the music’s wide tessitura effortlessly.

The Hidden Face, arranged by the composer at the request of Nicholas Daniel and Michael Chance, was originally composed for countertenor, oboe and 16 muted violins and violas. The work is a prayer which Tavener has explained should ‘hold within it a whole tradition with nothing personal or idiosyncratic, as in ikon painting’. Richard Boothby’s programme notes contained Tavener’s full explanation of the work’s intent and meaning: ‘Prayer, in the Orthodox East, is from the heart. The mind must have gone into the heart … only the Divine Presence knows what is in our hearts, and this suggests a music of such humility, wrapped in a depth of inner silence and stillness of which we have no idea. Paradise was made of peace, and so Adam could hear the Divine Voice. It is almost impossible now. We have to cast off all the received, intellectual, sophisticated garbage and also the preconceived knowledge of God that modern man has so disastrously collected, and listen with a heart that has become so soft that the Face is no longer Hidden. But we are still at the beginning, so the title remains The Hidden Face.’

As the lights were lowered the two soloists were themselves almost hidden in the dim obscurity of the balcony above the viol players on the stage beneath. Fretwork demonstrated consummate discipline and poise, intoning Tavener’s radiant parallel harmonies with the transcendence of ritual, while aloft oboe and voice engaged in a fervent, elaborate exchange of increasingly impassioned melisma, ranging to extreme heights and depths. Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question came to mind, in which the strings are ‘the silences of the Druids, who know, see, and hear nothing’, above which the trumpet poses ‘the perennial question of existence’ and the woodwind represent the ‘fighting answerers’ who, for all their sound and fury, get nowhere.

The expressness of the performers’ technical mastery was remarkable; there was both luminosity and mystery. But, while I recognised and relished the expertise of the performers, the end result left me feeling rather distanced. Tavener once professed the he ‘wanted to produce music that was the sound of God. That’s what I have always tried to do’. I think it’s hard for non-believers to entirely immerse themselves in such enterprises.

It didn’t help either that the audience in the Hall did not aspire to the music’s meditational stillness. Coughing and spluttering repeatedly disturbed the rhapsodic transcendence of the two Tavener works, while Taverner’s Mass was twice interrupted by the arrival of late patrons, stamping down the wood-floored aisles. Given the concentrated intensity of this programme, this was a pity.

Claire Seymour

Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Fretwork - Asako Morikawa, Richard Boothby, Reiko Ischise, Emily Ashton, Richard Tunnicliffe and Sam Stadlen (viols).

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