From Renaissance to Baroque in Victorian Splendour with Cambrian Consort

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Tomkins, Taverner, Byrd, Weelkes, Gibbons, Giovanni Gabrieli, Schütz: Robert Court (organ), Simon Rees (presenter), Cambrian Consort / Philip Pooley, (conductor),  St. Augustine’s Church, Penarth, 7.10.2012 (GPu)

Thomas Tompkins: Music Divine
John Taverner
: Dum Transisset Sabbatum
William Byrd
: Ne irascaris Domine
Thomas Weelkes
: When David Heard
William Byrd
: Tho’ Amaryllis dance in green
Thomas Tomkins
: Oyez! Has any found a lad
Thomas Tomkins
: When David heard
Thomas Tomkins
: Behold the Hour Cometh
Orlando Gibbons
: Great Lord of Lords
Thomas Tomkins
: A sad paven for these distracted times
Giovanni Gabrieli
: Jubilate Deo
Heinrich Schütz
: Jauchzet dem Herrn
Thomas Tomkins
: Almighty God the fountain of all wisdom

“Music divine, proceeding from above,
Whose sacred subject oftentimes is love,
In this appears her heavenly harmony,
Where tuneful concords sweetly do agree.
And yet in this her slander is unjust,
To call that love which is indeed but lust”.

So runs the text of Thomas Tomkins’ six-part madrigal ‘Music Divine’, from his Songs of 3, 4, 5 and 6 parts, of 1622. It opened a well-designed programme by the Cambrian Consort in the beautiful Victorian church of St. Augustine’s in Penarth, above Cardiff Bay, a church in which William Butterfield uses polychromatic brickwork to magical effect and in the churchyard of which – a nice musical connection – is the grave of Joseph Parry, composer of ‘Myfanwy’.

For all the rich musical life of South Wales one of the things it has hitherto lacked is a professional chamber choir of a high standard, devoted to music of the Renaissance and the Baroque. That need has been filled with the establishment of the Cambrian Consort in 2011, under the leadership of Philip Pooley, who is now based within Welsh National Opera and an experienced member of such major ensembles as The Sixteen, The Cardinall’s Musick, The Huelgas Ensemble and The Academy of Ancient Music; he has also had spells with the choirs of Christ Church in Oxford, Westminster Cathedral and the Brompton Oratory. His experience, and the talents of his singers, meant that “tuneful concords” and evidences of “heavenly harmony” (and a few appropriate dissonances) were in plentiful and pleasurable supply in this fine concert.

The programme was arranged around the long life and career of Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) – the earliest Welsh-born composer to make a substantial reputation for himself on a wider stage – placing the music of Tomkins in the context of the enormous changes in musical style, in the circumstances of English church music, and of the turbulent political events he lived though. The music was helpfully contextualised by the spoken presentation of Simon Rees, dramaturg of WNO, poet and novelist, whose introductions were both witty and well-informed.

Whether singing Italianate madrigals, such as those by Tomkins himself and Byrd’s much earlier ‘Tho’ Amaryllis dance in green’ (published in Psalmes, Sonnets and Songs of 1588), or the very late medieval and ‘English’ music of Taverner’s motet, the choir were consistently impressive, responsive to details of text, well-balanced and blended, without such integration ever being in danger of muddying the complex textures of much of this music. The heartbreaking elegiac poignancy of Weelkes’ elegiac ‘When David Heard’ was every bit as striking as the joyous vivacity of Byrd’s ‘Amaryllis’ or as the word-painting of Tomkins’s ‘Oyez!’.  In the second half of the concert the repertoire was well selected to illustrate the rapid evolution of church music, notably with the emergence of the anthem, as perfectly illustrated in Orlando Gibbons’ powerful ‘Great Lord of Lords’ with its interplay of choral polyphony, solo voices and duets (the work of altos Joe Bolger and James Neville was particularly impressive here). Robert Court, playing the 1895 organ by Hill, restored in 2000) gave us a very moving reading of Tomkins’s gravely melancholy ‘A sad paven’, an old man’s response to the events of the Civil War and their implications for the great traditions out of which Tomkins’s music had grown and within which his life had been led. As was also evidenced by his motet ‘When David Heard’, Tomkins had a particular gift for music of sombre lamentation. In the closing years of Tomkins’ life English music was, to a degree, cut off from the developments growing apace in continental Europe as tastes and idioms shifted once more, as the new attitudes and stylistic assumptions of the Baroque emerged. In their (radiant) singing of two settings of Psalm 100, by Giovanni Gabrieli and Heinrich Schütz, the Cambrian Consort displayed their range and their understanding of different choral idioms. The echoic effects of Schütz’s setting (which worked particularly well in the acoustic of St. Augustine’s) and the bright colours of that by Gabrieli seemed to make Butterfield’s brickwork shine even more lustrously! Here, to quote the Psalm from the King James Bible, there was “a joyful noise”, music that affirmed that “the Lord is good” and that “his truth endureth to all generations”. Fittingly the evening was rounded off by a return to the music of Thomas Tomkins, in the form of his anthem ‘Almighty God the fountain of all wisdom’, which closes, aptly enough, with one of the loveliest of English settings of the single resonant word ‘Amen’.

The Cambrian Consort is still a relatively young choir and will surely continue to develop; but already it can bear comparison with many more famous ensembles. The audience for this concert was somewhat disappointingly small; it deserves better and it is to be hoped that it will come to get the support it deserves and which, most importantly, it is well capable of rewarding.


Glyn Pursglove