Centuries-old ‘Minimalism’ from the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Parsons, Plainsong, Dunstable, Hacomplaynt, Tallis, Damett, Byttering, Henry V, Power, and Fayrfax: Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury (conductor). Hall One, Kings Place, 4.3.2015 (MB)

Robert Parsons – Ave Maria
Plainsong Vespers
Dunstable – Ave maris stella
Magnificat secondi toni
Robert Hacomplaynt – Salve Regina
Tallis – Videte miraculum
Thomas Damett – Beata Dei genetrix
Plainsong Kyrie
Byttering – Nesciens mater
Roy Henry – Sanctus
Plainsong – Agnus Dei
Leonel Power – Ave Regina caelorum
Robert Fayrfax – Magnificat ‘Regale’

One of the best stories – true, I think – about the late, greatly lamented impresario, Gérard Mortier, concerned his handling of a philistine donor to the Salzburg Festival. Unimpressed at Mortier’s opening up of the operatic repertoire, especially to the great musical dramas of the twentieth century, the person in question gave a large sum, on condition that it fund a production of an Italian opera. Mortier took the money and staged Busoni’s Doktor Faust. I similarly admire Stephen Cleobury’s chutzpah in his introduction to an otherwise bizarre programme note (whose perpetrator I shall charitably shroud in anonymity). ‘When I was asked to devise a programme on the “minimalist” theme,’ Cleobury writes, ‘the idea of a plainsong based sequence immediately suggested itself, since a single unadorned melodic line so obviously fits this theme.’ That, it would seem, is how music from the Eton Choirbook and the Old Hall Manuscript, together with other early English music, came to be performed in a concert series entitled ‘Minimalism Unwrapped’. Just as well, since a programme of ‘holy minimalism’, or whatever it calls itself nowadays, would have had me give Kings Place a very wide berth indeed. What we heard, in genuine celebration of the quincentenary of the completion of the fabric of King’s College Chapel, was an admirable performance of a complete Vespers and a composite Mass, sandwiched between later Marian motets and two Magnificat settings from the Eton Choirbook. If such music be the food of minimalism, play on; and what, one might ask, would not qualify?

The concert opened with the Ave Maria by Robert Parsons, a staple of Choral Evensong. Perhaps the choir took a little while to adjust to an acoustic about as far removed from that of King’s Chapel as I can imagine; or perhaps it was my ears. At any rate, the revelation of its voices, tenors first, eventually trebles, offered a decent curtain-raiser to the main body of the first half. The boys then left the stage until after the Marian Vespers sequence. An edition of Sarum chant made by Jesse Billett (a sometime choral scholar) was employed: particularly fitting, given that rite’s use in royal foundations. The first antiphon and psalm (113) did not always offer lines as precisely honed as this bright acoustic might have preferred, but ultimately, that was of little import: throughout, there was a fine sense of chant that was an everyday friend. This was, of course, a concert rather than a service, but more than a remnant of the latter lingered – in a very positive sense.

Within the chant lay two works by John Dunstable (or Dunstaple, as we are now supposed to call him): an Ave maris stella and Magnificat. What particularly impressed me about both was the way in which performance of the music clearly proceeded from plainsong. These were not performances intended to draw attention to themselves, but modest in the best sense of the word, typical of Cleobury’s best work. The Magnificat is the somewhat more ornate work, though such things are relative rather than absolute. Its contrast between solo voices (countertenor and tenor, the latter in particular growing in confidence as the performance progressed) and full choir offered variation for our ears in a recognisably modern sense, irrespective of intention and original context.

The boys returned for the Magnificat by Robert Hacomplaynt, Provost of King’s (1509-28), formerly of Eton, that other great foundation of Henry VI. Again, there was an increase in floridity, but again, there was a fine impression of the music arising from the plainsong we had heard, not least in a flexibility which, far from being inimical to metrical sense, actually contributed thereto. Marian sweetness and clemency were to be heard without a hint of sentimentality. Perhaps I am being fanciful, but I even gleaned an impression of intercession.

Tallis opened the second half, with his Videte miraculum, Marian according to more than one usage. Here we heard not a reversion but a forward-looking alternative to the Reformation, indeed a work of the Counter Reformation. How different things might have been? Or maybe not. Again, the motet was sung with all the advantages that daily – well, frequent – performances of such repertoire brings; again, the flow of a performance sounding horizontally conceived, impressed in its ‘natural’ manner. Trebles again left the stage, this time for the Mass sequence, ‘de Beata Maria Virgine’, incorporating music from the Old Hall Manuscript. From a casual glance of the programme, ‘Roy Henry’ might have seemed like a twenty-first-century interpolation: the Henry in question was, of course, ‘roy’ as in king, most likely Henry V. Leonel Power, a member of Henry’s Chapel, offered an Ave Regina caelorum, with other motets hailing, as it were, from Thomas Danett and (Thomas?) Byttering. All received honest, unexaggerated performances, which permitted that celebrated illusion of the music, or perhaps we should say the music and words, speaking for itself or themselves.

The closing performance was of Robert Fayrfax’s Magnificat, ‘Regale’. Mary sang her song joyfully and without affectation. Fayrfax’s long lines were relished, again in the best sense of an unassuming performance. The work – and I see no reason why we should not speak of this as a ‘musical work’ – sounded effortlessly, or seemingly effortlessly, as a whole. And if there was nothing on the level of a King’s Chapel echo to be heard, this wonderful polyphony continued to sound in my aural memory long after the concert had finished.


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