The Dead of World War I Commemorated by The Tallis Scholars in Chipping Campden

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Josquin, Guerrero, Pärt, Mouton, Lobo, Victoria, Tavener, Palestrina, The Tallis Scholars, Peter Philips (director), St. James’ Church, Chipping Campden, 13.5.2014 (JQ)

War and Peace. A programme commemorating all those who lost their lives in the 1914-18 war

Monody – L’Homme armé
Josquin des Prés (c1440 – 1521) – Kyrie from Missa L’Homme armé
Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599) – Gloria from Missa Batalla
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) – The Woman with the Alabaster Box
Jean Mouton (bef, 1459-1522) – Quis dabit oculis?
Alonso Lobo (1555-1617) – Versa est in luctum
Guerrero – Credo from Missa Batalla
Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) – Requiem aeternam from Missa pro Defunctis
Guerrero – Sanctus from Missa L’Homme armé
Sir John Tavener (1944-2013) – Song for Athene
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/6-1594)– Agnus Dei from Missa Papae Marcelli
Victoria – Libera me from Missa pro Deficits

You might reasonably ask what relevance a programme consisting mainly of Renaissance polyphony has to the commemoration of those who died in the Great War. Well, as was pointed out in the programme notes, ‘the unending cycle of war and peace, death and life is not a contemporary invention…[and the programme offered]…a sequence of works united by their shared preoccupation with conflict and consolation.’ While not disagreeing for a moment perhaps I might add a further thought? When I studied history at school and then at university I learned quite a bit about the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation in Europe. I came to the conclusion that, notwithstanding the horrors of the two World Wars of the twentieth century, the most unpleasant time in which to have lived would have been Europe between about 1520 and 1648 – or, in the case of England, until 1660. In that period Europe was wracked by a series of wars and other conflicts inspired by a particularly toxic blend of religion and politics and it was a decidedly dangerous time to be alive. Much of the music in tonight’s programme was composed during that period which was, like the Great War, a time of man’s inhumanity to man. Notwithstanding the turbulent times in which these composers lived and worked the music we heard was largely serene and beautiful, suggesting that the religious institutions where the music would have been sung and heard managed to remain oases of relative tranquillity of spirit.

Each half of the programme was heard as an uninterrupted sequence and it seemed to me that the pieces complemented each other very well. The two twentieth-century works did not seem at all out of place. The programme included all the movements of the Ordinary of the Mass but we heard a composite Mass that included music by three composers from four separate settings. It was good to hear the popular chanson, L’Homme armé and then the Kyrie from the Mass which Josquin based on this tune – as many other composers did. It’s fascinating to see how Josquin used a robust, earthy melody as the basis for such immaculate polyphony. Guerrero’s Missa Batalla is also based on a secular song – by Jannequin. The addition of a second soprano part meant that Guerrero’s music had a brighter, richer texture compared with Josquin’s four-part composition.

Ten voices were also used for the piece by Pärt but here the music is far more simple and economical of means than is Guerrero’s. The Tallis Scholars gave a superbly controlled account of it and here, as elsewhere in the programme, the wonderfully clear acoustics of St. James’ Church ensured that no detail was lost. Furthermore, in this acoustic Pärt’s very deliberate use of short silences made a telling impact, something that might have been compromised in a more resonant acoustic.

Jean Mouton’s Quis dabit oculis? dispenses with sopranos and is scored for ATTB, which results in a darker texture. This piece, which was included on The Tallis Scholars’ very fine disc of music by Mouton (review), was written on the death in 1514 of Mouton’s patron, Queen Anne of Burgundy, wife of Louis XII of France. It’s a slow, dignified and intense mourning piece and it received an outstanding performance. So did the piece by Lobo which followed. Here Peter Philips shaped the lines and the dynamics very effectively – but without undue exaggeration – to heighten or relax the tension in the music.

All the music in the second half was wonderful but for me it was dominated by the movements from Victoria’s Requiem, composed after the death in 1603 of the composer’s patron, the Dowager Empress Maria, sister of Philip II of Spain. It’s an extraordinary, beautiful work and I would gladly have heard all of it but the extracts were very satisfying. We heard the Introit, Requiem aeternam, in which the superbly crafted polyphony was expertly sung in a finely balanced performance. After this very solemn music it was shrewd programming to let us hear the Sanctus and Benedictus from Guerrero’s Missa L’Homme armé because the textures are lighter – the basses are dispensed with – and the nimble Hosanna is particularly delightful.

When I interviewed Peter Philips and Steve Smith of Gimell Records a few years ago Peter Philips made an interesting point, which, as I recall, he also makes in his book on The Tallis Scholars, What We Really Do (review). He said: “..when people come up to me after a concert and say: “That was fantastic; it was just like it is on the records”, I thank them very much, of course; they’ve obviously had a great time. But it’s not just the same as it is on the record. You gain and you lose when you make a record.” There was a prime illustration of this point during the final piece on the published programme, the Libera me from Victoria’s Requiem. I was struck by how intense and dramatic this performance became in both the polyphonic passages and in the stretches of plainchant, which are in the treble line. This was especially the case in the middle of the movement before the ‘Requiem aeternam’ music is reprised. Drama in Renaissance polyphony? You bet; though everything was, at the same time, expertly controlled. At home I got out the group’s magnificent recording of the Victoria Requiem (review) and played the same movement. It’s very fine, of course, and there’s ample intensity but this live performance – with mostly different singers, in a different acoustic and in front of an audience at the culmination of a programme – had that certain, undefinable ‘something’ and certainly, to my recollection, greater intensity.

We were given an encore in the shape of Victoria’s motet, Versa est in luctum, the penultimate movement of the Requiem. The grave, restrained beauty of this music was an ideal way to round off the concert.

This was a very fine concert, performed with consummate technique and understanding by Peter Philips and his superb ensemble. The music composed centuries before the conflict of 1914-18 proved to be a very fitting tribute to those who perished in that war.

John Quinn

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