Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Tallis Scholars - 2000 concerts and counting!

© Eric Richmond

The Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips (Director)

Taverner (c.1490-1545):    Leroy Kyrie
Sheppard (1515-1558):  Missa Cantate

Gabriel Jackson (b.1962):  Ave Dei patria filia
Byrd (c.1539-1623): Infelix ego
Ye Sacred Muses
Tribue Domine

Tallis (c.1505-1585):  Miserere nostri
Stanford (1852-1924):  The Blue Bird

St John's Smith Square, 21 September 2015


© Albert Roosenburg
2000 concerts in 42 years – an impressive statistic by any standard. The Tallis Scholars, now performing at a rate of roughly 100 concerts a year, with their founding director, Peter Phillips, chose to celebrate their 2000th concert in relatively low key style, compared with their gala 40th anniversary year concert at St Paul’s a couple of years ago. No expanded forces for Spem in Alium this time, but their more standard line-up of just 12 voices – a suitable way to celebrate such an achievement of such regular and consistent live performance, perhaps. However, three works from that concert appeared on tonight’s programme (although one as an encore), appropriately reflecting The Tallis Scholars’ repertoire with Renaissance polyphony combined with a contemporary choral work from Gabriel Jackson.

But the first half of their concert was dominated by a performance of the mammoth Missa Cantate by John Sheppard (1515-1558). Little is known about the detail of Sheppard’s life and music, which goes only some way to explaining why his wonderful music is not performed as often as Tallis or Byrd, say. One reason why the Missa Cantate in particular is not so often performed is the incredible stamina required to sustain a complete live performance. The Tallis Scholars wisely took short breathers between sections, yet even then, this is a pretty relentless challenge for just 12 voices, 2 to a part, with pretty much no let up.  Needless to say, The Tallis Scholars showed themselves more than up to this challenge however.

They preceded the mass with Taverner’s (c.1490-1545) Leroy Kyrie, so called as it is believed the tune may have been composed by King Henry IV or V. Immediately we heard The Tallis Scholars’ trademark smooth blend and bell-like high sopranos, setting the seen for the Missa Cantate to follow. In the opening Gloria, after the initial entries, Sheppard weaves the lower voices in and out in an almost hypnotic fashion, and the melismatic writing for tu solus (‘thou alone’) is exquisite, with more animation for cum Sancto Spiritu, and a glorious build to the Amen. Sheppard works his way through the Credo using the six voice parts in varied combinations, but also uses unexpected harmonic shifts (such as at ‘caelis’) to keep listeners and performers on their toes. Phillips and The Tallis Scholars managed the ebb and flow of the music within the overall arc of the whole mass with impressive ease, and the serenity of the Sanctus setting was contrasted well with the emphatic Hosannas, ending with a calming Agnus Dei, the lower voices particularly smooth and silky here. Having reached the end, Phillips and The Tallis Scholars deservedly enjoyed the sudden false relation and ‘blue’ notes Sheppard throws in towards the final cadence.

© Joel Garthwaite
The Tallis Scholars commissioned two works to celebrate their 40th anniversary, one from Eric Whitacre, and the other from Gabriel Jackson, and both were premièred at their anniversary concert at St Paul’s two years ago. Jackson’s Ave Dei patris filia opens with a joyful ‘Ave’, with all voices swooping in birdlike fashion. The use of repeated turns, particularly in the higher voices, is a striking feature throughout the work. There is limited use of overt dissonance, really only obvious in the Ave plena gracia section, and its economical use here is all the more effective for it, with bright soprano lines in a tight interplay. Jackson also frequently sets a melismatic soprano line against staccato rhythms in the other voices. These rhythms are particularly playful and bouncy in the penultimate Ave virgo feta section, which builds wonderfully to a return of the opening swooping for the final glorious praise and amen. It was great to hear this wonderful piece performed again, especially with the detail articulated in a slightly less challenging acoustic than St Paul’s.

The remainder of the programme focussed on Byrd, with two monumental votive antiphon motets that share a great deal in form and style, despite being composed some 15 or so years apart. The structure of both is comparable, with broadly similar shapes to their sections, and they share Byrd’s unusual choice of transposed Lydian mode. They ended with Tribue Domine, the earlier work, but first came Infelix ego.  The text for this is a contemplation on Psalm 50 by the Italian priest Savonarola, written shortly before his execution. Understandably full of anguish and penitence, it is ultimately a plea for mercy, and Byrd mixes hefty sections of homophonic writing against a variety of polyphonic writing for varied combinations of the 6 parts. Yet this is a subtle setting – after total despair and the question ‘Despair?’, the answer, ‘Absit’ (I shall not) turns the priest’s focus to seeking pity and mercy, and Byrd makes this distinction clear.  The opening section from The Tallis Scholars here could have perhaps had more anguish, but the increasingly insistent pleas for mercy had real intensity, before the music subsides back to a more subservient penitence for the final words.

Before Tribue Domine, came Ye Sacred Muses, Byrd’s heartfelt elegy to Tallis, following his death in 1585. The final words, ‘Tallis is dead, and music dies’ merit perhaps a little more emotion than on display here, but this was nonetheless a respectfully sensitive yet firm performance.

The Tallis Scholars then closed the programme with Tribue Domine. As with Infelix ego, Byrd makes much use of varied part writing, but also a variety of dynamic textures, with animated entries at the opening contrasting smoother overlapping falling lines at the end of the first section, for example. The Gloria section is substantial, and the build to the final Amen proved a fitting end to this well constructed programme. 

Not one but two encores followed – first the brief yet achingly exquisite Miserere nostri from Tallis, and then, slightly out of left-field, Stanford’s Victorian gem, The Blue Bird, with the two top sopranos beautifully blended on the solo line.

With no sign of their schedule letting up in any way, the concert tally will no doubt continue to rise indefinitely, but tonight’s concert will certainly stand out as a landmark on the way towards their next milestone.  Happy 2000th!

Friday, 18 September 2015

CD Reviews - September 2015

I recently had the pleasure to experience a première of an amazing work by Cheryl Frances-Hoad performed by The Cardinall’s Musick in the BBC Proms (review here). On the back of this, I’ve been listening to a CD of her vocal and choral works, called You Promised me Everything.  The title comes from her work for soprano, piano 4 hands and cello, You Promised me Everything Last Night, which explores, in repeating this phrase over and over, its many inflections and interpretations, charting perhaps rather depressingly a trajectory from joyous ecstasy to ultimate bitter desperation and sadness. The inflections are expertly characterised with a stunning performance from soprano Natalie Raybould, over a largely simple and somewhat bleak accompaniment.  The disc opens with Frances-Hoad’s response to Schumann’s song cycle, ‘Frauenliebe und Leben’ (Women’s Lives and Loves), which is, although a Romantic masterpiece, perhaps stuck in a male 19th century perspective on female emotions. So Frances-Hoad brings this up to date (while still drawing on elements of harmony or figuration from Schumann’s songs) in a cycle of eight songs, ‘One Life Stand’, setting poems by the poet and crime-writer Sophie Hannah.  As with Schumann’s cycle, the songs cover a range of emotions, but additionally here there is humour, in the dilemma of ‘should I, shouldn’t I phone him’ in ‘The Pros and Cons’, and especially in the mocking of male attitudes to pregnancy and childbirth in ‘Ante-Natal’. Yet Frances-Hoad also captures the depths of emotion, in the beautiful yet anguished lyricism of ‘Tide to Land’, with disturbing undertones in the harmony belying the vocal emphatic climax, and in the moments of cold shock and loss captured by ‘In the Chill’. Throughout, Frances-Hoad uses the texts imaginatively, whether vocally (for example the somewhat comedic yet barely suppressed anger and bitterness expressed in ‘Rubbish at Adultery’), or in the piano writing (such as the departing train in ‘Brief Encounter’). A brave thing to try and ‘update’ Schumann – but this is a highly successful cycle, and mezzo soprano Jennifer Johnston, who inspired the cycle, inhabits the spectrum of emotions here with great expertise. The piano accompaniment is at times highly challenging, yet Joseph Middleton performs this with apparent ease.  Johnston also performs the other major work that ends this disc, this time accompanied by Alisdair Hogarth in a setting of the Anglo-Saxon poem, ‘Beowulf’.  Highly ambitious, this is almost a mini-opera in itself, with barely a break for the singer in roughly half an hour of dramatic narrative. Yet Frances-Hoad achieves surprising variety, with passages of largely recitative over chordal underpinning from the piano contrasted with racing rhythms to portray moments of action, and great word-painting for the serpent and the dragon at the climax. The closing moments of wailing grief for Beowulf’s funeral pyre are heartbreakingly bleak. A live performance would offer greater communication between singer and listener, harder to achieve on CD, but nonetheless this is an impressively individual piece of dramatic vocal writing. ‘Don’t’ 
was dedicated to soprano Jane Manning for her 70th birthday, and wittily sets marriage advice from the 1913 book ‘Don’t’s for Wives’, comically accompanied by the extremes of piccolo and bass clarinet. Jane Manning performs here with great gusto and aplomb. There are three choral pieces on the disc, all performed confidently by the Gonville & Caius College Choir, directed by Geoffrey Webber. They include a seemingly straightforward yet moving setting of ‘There is No Rose’, which avoids the saccharine of so many other modern Xmas settings – all the more impressive given that she composed it aged 14!  Her Psalm 1 setting contrasts stability, underpinned by the organ, with some wild, violent setting, with leaping intervals, and then ends with a striking effect of the organ literally dying away, with the instruction to switch of the blower, creating a bizarre effect of deflation. Her 21-part setting of the Nunc Dimittis is highly challenging, with a particularly high-wire part for 1st soprano, including numerous top Ds, ably sung here by Rose Wilson-Haffenden.  Overall, this disc demonstrates an incredibly wide variety of styles and moods, from humour to real depths of human emotion, and shows that Frances-Hoad is a composer of broad-ranging talent.

Violinist Tasmin Little has teamed up with pianist Piers Lane to record all of Schubert’s works for the instruments, and they are also joined by cellist Tim Hugh for the bonus addition of the Sonata for Piano and Arpeggione (or cello), and finally an Adagio for all three instruments.  The three early violin Sonatas, composed when Schubert was just 19 (although we have to remember he therefore had just 12 more years of composing, before his premature death at age 31) are light works, subtitled as ‘Sonatinas’ by Diabelli when they were published, perhaps in indication of their relatively small scale.  These are not juvenile works, however, and although the first movement of the first sonata is clearly based around Mozart’s E minor Sonata, many aspects of Schubert’s mature style are also here.  These are real chamber works, in that the violin and piano are very much in equal partnership, and Little and Lane are sensitive to this.  As ever, Little produces a warm tone throughout, and Lane has a lightness of touch when needed, as well as energy and intensity in some of Schubert’s darker writing. The fourth Sonata, from just under two years after the first group, already shows Schubert’s rapid development, and increases the level of virtuosity required from the violinist in particular. The Rondeau brillant which opens the second disc, composed just two years before his death, is much more virtuosic again, and gives Little a chance to flex her muscles. The Fantasie was the last work Schubert wrote for the combination, composed the year before his early death, and from the very opening feels emotionally from a totally different place. The ‘fantasy’ form allows him more flexibility, although there is still a clear structure, and both instruments are given the chance to shine individually and together. The tender pianissimo playing from both in the Andante opening (which returns towards the end of the work) is very touching, and the central variations on one of his own song themes, first presented on the piano is Schubert at his most sublime.  The arpeggione was a short-lived instrument, a kind of hybrid cello-guitar, with six strings tuned like a guitar but played with a bow, and Schubert’s Sonata is really the only notable work for the instrument to survive, most often now played in a transcription for the cello. Tim Hugh’s warm, relaxed tone brings some welcome respite after the intensity of the Fantasie, and then the three join to close the disc in the very slow, exquisite single movement Adagio.  Another very late work, this was possibly intended as a slow movement for a full piano trio, but as with so many other of Schubert’s incomplete works, it is almost even more sublime for its fragility, without outer movements to diminish its intensity.  Overall, the violin sonatas are perhaps not amongst Schubert’s greatest works, but the playing here has such energy and life that these minor works are lifted beyond their lightness, and the later works, particularly the Fantasie, are works of exquisite beauty, and the trajectory of the programming, right through to the late Adagio, at all times performed with such sensitivity and expertise, makes this an outstanding collection.

The Cuarteto SolTango are a German group, comprising Rocco Heins (bandoneón), Karel Bredenhorst (cello), Sophie Heinrich (violin) and Martin Klett (piano), and they specialise in authentic tango music.  The new wave of tango music has perhaps been most famously brought to new audiences through the compositions of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), and they include a number of his compositions on their new disc, Cristal.  However, there are tangos here by a whole range of presumably Argentinian composers from the twentieth century, and a couple still alive today.  Sadly the CD notes give very little information on the composers or the individual works here (although there are some interesting notes on the history of tango music and its origins), so it’s best to just go with the flow here, and enjoy. Right from the opening flourish of the title track, ‘Cristal’, through the jagged rhythms of ‘La cicatriz’ (‘the scar’), the wonderfully spiky ‘Olivero’, the joyful, waltzy ‘Paisaje’, and the wistfully lyrical ‘Poema’, to the dramatic ‘Alma de bohemio’ (‘Bohemian soul’), the Cuarteto SolTango take us on a wonderful journey through the rich world of tango. The five Piazzolla works are striking in their relative complexity by comparison, however, with the sophisticated ‘Verano porteño’ (‘Summer in Buenos Aires’) and the mysterious ‘Homenaje a Córdoba’ (‘Tribute to Cordoba’) standing out. Beautifully sultry, this is a must for a late summer evening’s listening.

(Edited versions of  these reviews first appeared in GScene, September 2015)