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The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: The Orlando Consort

 

And, a good job it was too, or concerts such as this survey of English music spanning some two hundred years, from the closing decades of the thirteenth century to the end of the fifteenth, would not be possible, given the fragmentary nature of English manuscripts - thanks to the reformers of the sixteenth century. Fortunately for singers such as The Orlando Consort, continental manuscripts often ‘fill in the gaps’ of works preserved only partially, or not at all, in England.

However, there are some English sources, such as the Egerton and Ritson MSS and, most significantly, the Old Hall Manuscript - a parchment book compiled mostly in the 1410s which provides us with compositions of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries by some of the musicians mentioned above. The Old Hall was copied for use in the royal chapels, initially in the chapel of King Henry V’s brother, Thomas Duke of Clarence. Later additions were made in the early 1420s by members of the Chapel Royal who served the young King Henry VI. Further additions provide evidence of the way the repertory was continually renewed by new generations.

The Orlando Consort’s performance of this music was immaculate. One could sense the four singers continuously assessing and adjusting the balance between the voices, to ensure that the rhythmic impetus and smooth melodic flow - characteristic of the ‘English school’ that flourished in the 1400s - were maintained, while also bringing features of harmony and rhythmic complexity to the fore. Textures were clear and clean, the expressiveness deriving from the effect of the whole rather than from any individual textual or musical gesture.

The music of John Dunstaple (c.1390-1453) is not included in the main corpus of Old Hall, though there were later additions, but his reputation and royal connections have ensured that his music (how much of his oeuvre, though?) has survived and is well-known today. The Orlando Consort began with one of Dunstaple’s best-known works, the motet Veni Sancte Spiritus/Veni Creator Spiritus, which was composed for performance in 1416 at a thanksgiving service at Canterbury Cathedral, after the Battle of Agincourt. The complexities of this grand motet, with its simultaneous triple texts, were delineated graciously, the voices blending well - first in the introductory duets, the treble line burgeoning melodically around the tenor’s statement of the chant, later as a quartet. Increasingly swelling in amplitude, The Orlando Consort at times suggested a greater number than their own four voices. This enhanced the growing mood of excitement in the text, which is complemented by the diminution of the rhythmic values in the lower voices. Such technical difficulties were negotiated with ease.

At the end of the first half we would hear Dunstaple’s ‘Quam pulchra es’ (ATB), mellifluously sung, and ‘Descendi in ortum meum’ à 4. Alto Matthew Venner exploited the rich expressiveness of the latter’s decorative treble line, and there was strong energy in the positioning of the treble against the lower three voices - first sustained, then imitative - at the close. The Orlando Consort’s attentiveness to the potential for variety in the shaping of phrase-endings was effective.

But, before this we then took a short detour back to the years of the late-thirteenth and early-fourteenth centuries for three three-part works, their composer’s identities unknown but unmistakably of the English school. ‘Alleluia, Christo iubilemus’ (c.1290) was buoyant and full of joyful vigour, accented phrases providing real rhythmic ‘swing’. The voices often wound quite closely together, the unison ‘Alleluia’ which closed the first and last sections presenting a strong contrast and sense of happy resolution. The gentle homophony of ‘O sponsa Dei electa’ (1300, Worcester Fragments) was easeful and reverential while ‘Kyrie Cuthberte prece’ opened with a flourish of praise and featured striking harmonic twists to illuminate such textual images as “On those who celebrate his honour bound as captives in the flesh, have mercy”. It was rhythmically precise and sung with a lovely ‘open’ sound.

Leonel Power (d.1445) was of the generation preceding Dunstable and his music is well-represented in the Old Hall Manuscript. The ‘Gloria’ heard here (for TTB) indulges in virtuosic mensural complexities and The Orlando Consort generated a strong sense of expanse, excitement and confidence - perhaps a little too much so, as it encouraged the audience at Wigmore Hall, not for the first or sole time during the evening, to leap in with vigorous applause before the concluding cadence had had time to fully settle. The long lines of ‘En Katerine solennia’ (ATB) by Bittering (fl.1410-20) and the triple-time lightness of Roy Henry’s ‘Sanctus’ (ATT) (both contained in Old Hall) were followed by an anonymous Credo from the Second Fountains Abbey Manuscript, a joyous celebration of faith delivered here with sprightly dotted rhythms and textual clarity.

After the interval we continued our time-spanning journey with more works by composers unknown. In a Stella celi from the Trent Codices, the addition of lower tenor and bass to the initial treble and high tenor pairing brought a lovely sense of broadening, complemented by a richly expressive “O gloriosa stella maris” (O glorious Star of the Sea) and increasing propulsion through the plea to Jesus to save them from the plague. A setting of Audivi vocem (1420), from the Egerton Manuscript was compellingly fluent and, unusually for these works, its text had a strong narrative component which was communicated expressively. A Gaude Virgo (c.1450) from the Ritson Manuscript was surprising ‘slippery’ with regard to both harmony and rhythm: the vision of Christ’s ascension was made vivid by the rising brightness of treble and high tenor.

Very little of the music of John Pyamour (fl.c. 1418-26) is known so it was a treat to hear the composer’s Quam pulchra es (TTB) which combined complex overlapping lines, a prevailing low register and textural clarity. The Tota pulchra es by Forest (fl.c. 1415-30) was followed by the beautiful cantilena motet of John Plummer (1410-84), Anna mater matris Christi, which was characterised by the irregularities and quirks of the earlier medieval period. John Trouleffe (fl.1448-1473) was associated with Exeter Cathedral; his Nesciens mater (TTB) is found in Ritson’s Manuscript and was sung here with extraordinarily rich colour, vibrancy and excellent ensemble spirit.

The Eton Choir-book supplied the final item: Stella celi by Walter Lambe (c. 1450/51-1504), a four-part setting which presents a plea from deliverance from illness - a reminder of the precariousness of fifteenth-century life. Lambe’s setting is elaborate and brings the four voices together in sustained imitative fashion - a fitting culmination to a splendid concert.

Poised but relaxed, the Orlando Consort conveyed a sense of respect for the idiom and a true appreciation of style, but also draw forth the ‘human’ quality of the music, connecting us to the musicians of the past.

Claire Seymour

The Secrets of Heaven : Orlando Consort (Matthew Venner - alto, Mark Dobell - tenor, Angus Smith -tenor, Donald Greig -bass)

John Dunstaple - Veni sancte spiritus/Veni creator spiritus; Anon - Alleluia. Christo iubilemus, O sponsa Dei electa, Kyrie-Cuthberte prece; Leonel Power - Gloria; Bittering - En Katerine solennia; Roy Henry - Sanctus; Anon - Second Fountains Abbey Manuscript, Cred; Dunstaple -Quam pulchra es, Descendi in ortum meum; Anon- Trent Codices, Stella celi; John Pyamour -Quam pulcra es; Forest - Tota pulcra es; John Plummer - Anna mater matris Christi; Anon - Egerton Manuscript, Audivi vocem and Ritson Manuscript , Gaude virgo; John Trouluffe - Nesciens mater; Walter Lambe - Stella celi.

Wigmore Hall, London; Thursday 25th April 2019.

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