Alistair Dixon and Chapelle du Roi at the ‘Christmas Festival’ at St John’s, Smith Square

19/12/2011

Byrd, Fayrfax, Sheppard, Tallis, and Victoria:Chapelle du Roi, Alistair Dixon (director). St John’s, Smith Square, London, 17.12.2011 (MB)

Sarum chant: A solis ortus cardine
ByrdRorate cœli
FayrfaxMagnificat, ‘Regale’
Sheppard: Verbum caro
TallisBeati Immaculati
TallisSuscipe quæso Domine
TallisIf ye love me
SheppardI give you a new commandment
ByrdHodie Christus natus est
TallisVidete miraculum
TallisTe Deum
VictoriaAlma Redemptoris Mater

The ‘Christmas Festival’ at St John’s, Smith Square is now well under way, despite there being a week to go of Advent, a peculiarity of nomenclature rendered all the more peculiar given that sacred music provides the staple diet. But the name chosen for the present concert was also a little odd: ‘Meet the Tudors’. There was nothing especially regal about the works performed, no more or no less than one might expect from a programme of late-fifteenth-, sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century English sacred music. Byrd’s Gradualia, from which both the motets performed here are taken, was published two years after the death of Elizabeth I. Victoria’s presence, whilst welcome, also seemed odd, given the vague ‘concept’: a nod to Philip II perhaps? Chapelle du Roi, or rather its director, Alistair Dixon, would have been better advised either to let the music speak for itself, or to provide more of a guiding thematic link.

For the music is perfectly capable of speaking for itself, especially in capable performances such as these generally proved to be. The opening, processional Sarum hymn provided more ‘historical’ perspective than much of the rest of the programme, reminding us of the richness of English mediæval tradition, liturgical and musical, much of it wantonly destroyed by the Reformers’ zeal. Byrd’s introit, Rorate cœeli, flowed yet yielded, the eight voices of Chapelle du Roi showing the advantages of a small choir even to those of us who might be inclined to hanker after the likes of King’s College, Cambridge in such repertoire. Robert Fayrfax’s Magnificat was the sole representative of the Eton Choirbook. It unfolded as ‘naturally’ as one had any right to expect, a fine centrepiece to the first half. Not for the last time, however, there was a degree of dryness to the lower voices, the tenors especially, and there were a few intonational difficulties. More seriously, the ‘Esurientes’ section had to be restarted following a serious lapse of ensemble, though Dixon carried that difficult task off with a minimum of fuss.

John Sheppard’s Christmas Day Verbum caro suffered from occasional shortness of breath, leading phrases to fall away a little more than they should, though there were some properly plangent contributions to enjoy from the two counter-tenors. It was a pity, then, that they lapsed somewhat into hooting at the opening of Tallis’s Beati Immaculati. That, otherwise, was an interesting as well as musically satisfying performance, given that it was presented in a Latin version, on the supposition that the composer’s Blessed are those that be undefiled was itself a contrafactum version of a Latin original. Tallis’s Suscipe quæso Domine received a disarmingly heartfelt, expressive reading, its unusual qualities – not least the seven-part texture – observed and communicated, without undue exaggeration.

Tallis returned after the interval. If ye love me – most collegiate choirs love this anthem very much – was sung by four solo men’s voices, likewise Sheppard’s I give you a new commandment, albeit four different voices: now two tenors and two basses. (Neither piece was conducted.) Byrd’s Hodie Christus natus est was beset by a degree of fuzziness from the tenors, though it received a lively, if perhaps unduly hard-driven, performance. Videte miraculum, by Tallis, formed the counterpart to Fayrfax’s work in the first half. Written for the First Vespers of Candlemas, its Marian dissonances – it being impressed upon us how Mary is laden with a noble burden, ‘Stans onerata nobili onere Maria’ – were expressively handled and projected. ‘Knowing that she is not a wife, she rejoices to be a mother’ (‘Et matrem se lætam cognosci, quæ se nescit uxorem’), the two sopranos in particular emphasising the imploring nature of Tallis’s word-setting here.

We remained with Tallis for his English Te Deum. The initial cantorial intonation was not blessed with the strongest intonation in another sense. There was, moreover, something oddly chamber-like to the performance, the only occasion when I truly missed the forces of a larger choir. Somehow, the style seemed more appropriate to a recusant Byrd motet than to the grandeur of words and music. Nevertheless, antiphonal placing of the singers – essentially, one-to-a-part double choir – offered compensatory keenness of response, almost madrigalian in relatively-restrained English fashion. No ‘Gloria’ was given. Victoria’s Alma Redemptoris Mater sounded as if from another world, the warmth of its opening immediately felt: this was clearly music from Mediterranean, albeit Counter-Reformatory, climes.

Mark Berry

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