York Festival  Provides Sublime Setting for Renaissance Masterpieces 

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Victoria, Guerrero, Esquivel: The Cardinall’s Musick/Andrew Carwood (director), York Minster, York 17.7.2014 (JL)

Minster pic
Photo Credit York Minster

Victoria: Missa Salve regina
Alma redemptoris mater [a 5]
Ne timeas Maria
Propers for the Annunciation plainsong

Victoria         Salve regina [a 8]
Guerrero       Alma redemptoris mater
Victoria         Vadam et circuibo civitatem
Esquivel          Surge propera
Lobo             Virgo divino nimium
Victoria         Magnificat primi toni


Twelve days ago sweeping helicopter shots of the magnificent York Minster were transmitted to a TV audience estimated at up towards  three billion worldwide as the cyclists of the Tour de France prepared to start on the second day’s racing of the planet’s biggest annual sporting event.

The city’s next big event, The York Early Music Festival, can hardly compete with that but in the rarified field of  early music it is, internationally, a significant annual occasion (see preview on this site   https://seenandheard-international.com/2014/03/new-spains-golden-age-york-early-music-festival/?doing_wp_cron=1405441277.2125658988952636718750 )

The Cardinall’s Musick is  a choral group with a global reputation for its interpretations of Renaissance music,  particularly  that of the great 16th century composers Byrd, Tallis and Palestrina, many of whose works it has recorded. The concert conformed to one of this year’s Festival themes, which is Spain, and allowed an opportunity to  perform three notable Spanish composers from  “the greatest empire of the sixteenth century”. In reality it was something of a Victoria Fest, honouring one the 16th century’s greats.

Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) spent the middle part of his career in Rome brushing shoulders with Palestrina but cut his musical teeth within the soaring space of the  great cathedral at Ávila as a choirboy. York Minster therefore provided a fitting place to perform his music. I last heard The Cardinall’s Musick in the Chapterhouse, the meeting place which the Minster’s website claims  as the “most beautiful room in the world”.  This time they were in the Choir (or Quire) standing in front of the altar. Behind them the building’s East end was taken up with the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the world,  in front of them (and behind me) stretched the longest medieval nave in Christendom. Thus the music, the Latin texts, the impossible architectural ambition, the beauty of the glass were all  blended together in an example of  the supreme effort Man dedicated  to the Glory of God  hundreds of years ago.  We may not be able to get inside  the medieval mind’s relationship between Man and God but surely an occasion like this could help us get close.

The first half  consisted mostly  of sections from one of Victoria’s masses – Salve regina – interspersed with plainsong.  This is composed for two choirs, a practice  associated with  Venice and known as polychoral.  Each choir has four parts and  The Cardinall’s Musick,  standing  in a straight line,  sang one person to a  part.  This is a  late  work composed when Victoria was back in Spain and we  know that  the practice  was probably  to have  two singers to a part. This was of little consequence because the ensemble generated sufficient power to fill the Minster’s vast interior and the upper parts, sung by three women and a male counter tenor, would be stronger than the boys of Victoria’s time.

The two choirs, which I would have preferred to have been spaced further apart for stereophonic effect,  sing separately and alternately most of the time but Victoria has them combine at climactic points of the text.  The composer’s music tends to be more passionate and colourful than the sacred music of  his contemporaries. This does not necessarily make it better but probably more accessible to the sated modern ear. The most moving section of the mass I found to be the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us). There were  grinding dissonances, particularly between the upper two parts, that were executed so effectively as to tingle the spine.  Palestrina, close to the Vatican as he was, would not have got away with that sort of thing, being trussed up with rules by the Church’s Council of Trent that regarded sacred music that got too passionate as being dangerously profane.

On the subject of profanity, before the second half, The Cardinall Musick’s director, Andrew Carwood spoke to the audience, giving permission to applaud the separate items. English reserve combined with unclear etiquette about whether to applaud sacred music in a sacred place had resulted in there being none. I could almost hear a collective sigh of relief as permission was granted.

Two other composers were  featured. Guerrero, an older contemporary, was probably just as admired as Victoria in Spain at the time, whilst Esquivel was lesser known. Victoria, however, upstaged them.  In addition to the Mass there was a piece in  in six parts with an ambiguous text that dwells on the subject of love and was, explained Andrew Carwood, the nearest Victoria got to secular passion – he left no secular music at all. The concert ended with a  spectacular polychoral Magnificat in 9 parts.

A generation or two ago it was Palestrina who was widely regarded as the 16th century’s  greatest composer  but thanks to groups such as the Cardinall’s Musick,  combined with Andrew Carwood’s scholarship,have made such a case for Victoria that he has almost caught up. On this night the audience was treated to persuasive,  unaccompanied  polyphonic singing of  sublime quality.

John Leeman

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