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01 Feb 2019

Returning to heaven: The Cardinall's Musick at Wigmore Hall

The Cardinall’s Musick invited us for a second time to join them in ‘the company of heaven’ at Wigmore Hall, in a recital that was framed by musical devotions to St Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary.

In the Company of Heaven II: The Cardinall's Musick

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Andrew Carwood

Photo courtesy of Rayfield Allied

 

The eight singers who formed The Cardinall’s Musick on this occasion - some of whom are familiar figures from other ensembles such as The Tallis Scholars and The Sixteen - know this repertory and how to perform it like the proverbial back of the hand. But this no way lessens their attentiveness, expressivity and accomplishment. Rather - refreshingly so, in these days when we seem to be casting all continuity and cogency aside - I felt swept up in what one might call the comfort of tradition. The composers represented provided what was required, by Church and monarch, day after day, month after month, year after year; and they did so with confidence and certainty, of faith and fellow-feeling. And this performance by The Cardinall’s Musick celebrated and sustained the values and practices of such shared knowledge, experience and expectation. Past and present and, one would hope, future, truly cohered.

That’s not to say that the misgivings I tentatively expressed about the first concert in the series, didn’t persist here. It is strange to listen to liturgical music that is the medium and expression of collective worship being performed in a concert hall; it seems different in the case of the Passions of Bach, and the oratorios of Handel, which have such driving narratives and are dramatic and theatrical in character. However, the quality and persuasiveness of the singing pushed any qualms aside. Director Andrew Carwood achieved an excellent balance between a blended ensemble sound and highlights of colour, as individual voices came to the fore, and the security of the performances was underpinned by bass Robert Macdonald, so often providing a relaxed and reassuring foundation. If I had any slight reservation then it would be that occasionally the soprano voices were not entirely attuned to the harmonic bed beneath them, though their sound was bright and sensitively nuanced.

The programmes that Carwood devises, and his delivery of them, confirms the sureness of his conceptions and intent, although in the compositions for smaller combinations of voices I did wonder whether the singers ‘needed’ a conductor. Tenor Steven Harrold was characteristically eloquent in his solo contributions and alertly engaged with his fellow performers, and the absence of a conductor might have encouraged more consistent ensemble communication of this kind.

Thomas Crecquillon’s motet ‘Congratulamini mihi’ retells the story of Mary Magdalene’s meeting with Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, following the Resurrection. It is a stirring and vibrant work, and the five voices conjured energy and expansiveness in the first section before coming to rest on a soft cadential ‘Alleluia’ at the mid-point. Mary’s anxious questioning in the second part of the motet, as she struggles to make sense of the empty tomb, was darker in tone, and Crecquillon’s linear movement led to some striking harmonies as the searching contrapuntal lines interweaved.

Francisco Guerrero’s Mass Congratulamini mihi (à 6) takes up themes from Crequillon’s motet. When Carwood and The Cardinall’s singers recorded the Mass in 2010, on the Hyperion label, they placed the motet after the Mass which parodies it, but here we had the more conventional ordering. This was a truly polished performance, reverential in tone and sung with soaring fluency. Carwood’s tempi were convincing and flexible. The interplay of voices in the Kyrie was gentle, but towards the close there was a slight pushing forwards, intimating a fresh sense of purpose as we looked towards the ensuing Gloria, in which the three upper voices were beautifully beseeching when asking for the Lord’s mercy, and vigour was derived at the close from the conversations between the inner voices. In the Credo, the lines ‘Et resurrexit tertia die secundum scripturas, Et ascendit in caelum’ (And he rose on the third day according to the scriptures, and ascended into heaven) were wonderfully spacious, as Carwood held back the tempo, allowing the expressive harmonies to make their mark, before once more pressing on, ‘Et in spiritum sanctum Dominum et vivificantem’ (And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life). Harrold’s prominent tenor line in the Sanctus was beautifully mellifluous and tender, but again Carwood was alert to the varying sentiments and spirit of the text, building to a buoyant ‘Hosanna in excelsis’, the rhythms of which were particular muscular when the section was repeated after the more withdrawn Benedictus. The triple-time pulse at the start of the Agnus Dei and the sweetly blended sound were consoling, while with the shift to four beats in a bar there was a heightened earnestness. The movements of the Mass were separated by Gregorian chant propers for the Feast of St Mary Magdalene; those sung by tenor Nicholas Todd made a particularly strong impression, the tone warm, the phrasing expressively devotional.

Various female saints - Mary, Cecilia, Barbara - were celebrated in the motets which formed the second half of the recital. I loved the way the singers settled so soothingly and gratifyingly into the final cadence of Peter Philips’ ‘Caecilia virgo’, calming the preceding vigour. Philippe Verdelot’s ‘Salve, Barbara’ was one of the highlights of the evening, the four voices (SATT) flowing through the melismatic lines with beguiling tenderness. Carwood’s careful planning was evident in the progression of pieces, the four lower voices in Adrian Willaert’s ‘In tus patientia’ which followed presenting a pleasing contrast.

We heard more from Guerrero, his six-part ‘Surge propera’, and two settings of ‘Cantantibus organis’ - Luca Marenzio’s four-part setting which was notable for the beautiful soprano and alto duet that pleads for the Lord to make hearts pure, and the more expansive and robust eight-part setting of Daniel Torquet. And composers on this side of the Channel were not neglected. The singers communicated the yearning intensity of William Byrd’s ‘Salve regina’ and glowed through the increasingly rich harmonies with which Byrd conveys the suffering of those groaning and weeping in the vale of tears (‘Gementes et flentes in hac lacrimarum valle’). After such passion and power, Michael Praetoris’ ‘Regina caeli jubila’ for SSA was refreshingly clean and the singing was free and joyful.

In the first concert of this series, Palestrina had been the magisterial figure. Here, he was kept silent until the end, but when The Cardinall’s Musick presented their final item, the composer’s Magnificat Primi Toni (à 8), in which Carwood crafted a compelling forward drive, in was hard not to feel that here was the true master at work - assured and reassuring.

The encore, Joseph lieber, Joseph mein by Hieronymous Praetorius - chosen to mark Candlemas, which falls this Saturday and brings Christian celebrations of the birth of Christ to a close - was beautifully sung but rather dissolved the strength of the spiritual certainty and conviction that Palestrina’s Magnificat establishes. What was most powerfully echoing in my memory as I left Wigmore Hall was the expressive eloquence of Nicholas Todd’s chants. Divine in every sense of the word.

This concert was recorded and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 31 st January; it will be available via BBC iPlayer Radio and the BBC Sounds app for 30 days.

Claire Seymour

The Company of Heaven II : The Cardinall’s Musick

Thomas Crecquillon - Congratulamini mihi; Francisco Guerrero - Missa Congratulamini mihi; Gregorian Chant - Propers for the Feast of St Mary Magdalene; Peter Philips - Cecilia Virgo; Philippe Verdelot - Salve Barbara; Adrian Willaert - In tua patientia; Francisco Guerrero - Surge propera; Luca Marenzio - Cantantibus organis; Daniel Torquet - Cantantibus organis; William Byrd - Salve regina; Michael Praetorius - Regina caeli jubila; Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina - Magnificat primi

Wigmore Hall, London; Wednesday 30th January 2019.

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