Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Field of the Cloth of Gold - Celebrating a Great Treaty

Credit: Eric Richmond
The Tallis Scholars opened the 10th Brighton Early Music Festival with a programme celebrating the work of French composer Jean Mouton (c1459-1522) and the English composer William Cornysh (1465-1523).  The programme's premise was that the two composers may well have met at the famous meeting between Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England - hence the programme title - as both led the respective Chapels Royal at the time, and they formed a key part of the lavish celebrations surrounding the signing of the treaty.  One of the earliest examples of a 'sing-off', perhaps?

On a miserable autumnal evening, we were treated to a selection of music by both composers, as well as one piece (Salve Regina) from contemporary John Browne (fl. c1480-1505).  They began with Mouton's Nesciens Mater, and immediately the warm tones and smooth flowing lines of his writing banished the cold from St Bartholomew's Church in Brighton.  Mouton was an unparallelled expert in the use of canon in his writing, yet this technical expertise is never at the expense of a beautifully blended overall sound.  Nesciens Mater in fact consists of a strict canon between two groups of four voices, with a tenor part based on plainchant woven through - yet without knowing this, you would be hard pressed to spot it.  Some ensembles might choose to point this out by accentuating the entries of different voices, but the Tallis Scholars wisely go for the overall (and surely intended) effect of producing a seamless, ebbing and flowing tenderness appropriate to the Marian text of the virgin suckling the baby Jesus.

Peter Phillips
 (Credit: Albert Roosenburg)
They followed this with Cornysh's Ave Maria, and immediately the contrast between the two composers was apparent.  Cornysh's writing has less overall structure, and his lines interweave much more freely.  He also makes much use of 'gimells' for two or three voices, which break up the structure.  These gimell can be extremely complex and florid, and provide great contrast to the full voiced sections, as heard in the Amen of the Ave Maria.

Mouton's Ave Maria which followed, however, couldn't be more different - once again, the smoothness of his writing is what strikes.  Yet Mouton also knows how to mix it up when he wants - he reserves the use of homophonic chords for the climax here, the three 'O Maria' invocations, also moving from duple to triple time for just this section.   The piece which followed, Quaeramus cum pastoribus, also showed another side to Mouton.  This Christmas motet has a much simpler, more immediate fell, with the 'Noe, noe' refrain creating a light and joyous feel.

The Tallis Scholars ended the first half with Browne's Salve Regina, from the Eton Choirbook.  This substantial piece builds wonderfully to a magnificent final lengthy melisma on the final 'Salve'.  After the interval, they returned to Mouton, with two movements from the Missa Dictes moy toutes voz pensées.  This mass is based on a chanson by Loyset Compère (c1445-1518), and on The Tallis Scholars latest CD of music by Mouton, you can hear the whole mass, as well as the three partchanson from Compère.  In the CD notes, director Peter Phillips talks about how it was the gimell in the Agnus Dei which splits the bass part into three that attracted him most to this mass, and it was impressively performed here, as on the disc, by Tim Scott Whiteley, Rob Macdonald and Stephen Charlesworth.  Presumably this also inspired the 'Blues Brothers' photo shoot for the CD.  Scored for five lower parts, it is the altos Caroline Trevor and Patrick Craig that get the top line here - in fact the sopranos have comparatively less to do in this low scored programme.  But the deeper sonorities certainly added to the warm and mellifluous sound world in the concert - I wonder whether further back in the generous St Bart's acoustic this may have come across a little muddy, however.

After the brief but impressive Salve nos, Domine, once again demonstrating Mouton's dazzling command of canon, the rest of the programme was given over to Cornysh.  Firstly, an unexpected and rather sweet secular canon for just two tenors and two basses, Ah Robin - tenors Mark Dobell and George Pooley deserve specific mention here.  Baritone Greg Skidmore will also be familiar to BREMF regulars, from his performances in previous years' BREMF Live scheme with the 1607 Ensemble.  Woefully Arrayed followed - a much darker work, meditating somewhat gruesomely on Christ's body on the cross - in sharp contrast somewhat to the massive embellished gold crucifix above the altar behind the performers.

They ended the concert with Cornysh's wonderful Magnificat.  Yet even here, although all the voices were involved, use of the sopranos is sparse, with more extended use of the lower parts.  The sopranos Janet Coxwell and Amy Haworth were rewarded with a final two-part flourish for 'et in saeculorum' at the end.  

So in terms of that 'sing-off'?  Sorry to side with the French, but Mouton had it for me.  But the contrast of Cornysh's style was inspired programming here, and this was a concert that will stick in my memory for some time.  And do check out the Mouton CD - in addition to all the Mouton music from the concert (apart from Quaeramus cum pastoribus), and the complete Mass, there's another Ave Maria, and a beautiful lament for Queen Anne, Quis dabit oculis?  Most of the vocal line-up is the same, with a few changes, and the overall sound is obviously cleaner than the St Bart's acoustic allows for.  Highly recommended.

So BREMF is off to a cracking start - Happy 10th Birthday!  The festival continues until 11 November.  Check it out here.

See this review also at GScene.

Other reviews:

Latest 7

The Argus

And you can read a preview article in The Argus about the link between The Tallis Scholars and 'Fifty Shades of Grey'!

Mouton, Jean.  Missa Dictes moy toutes voz pensées. The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips. 2012. Compact Disc. Gimell CDGM047.

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