Spitalfields Music: Christmas with the Shepherds
The Marian Consort, Rory McCleery
St Leonard’s, Shoreditch. 14 December 2015
For their Spitalfields Festival debut, The Marian Consort brought their programme ‘Christmas with the Shepherds’ (based on last year’s CD release) to St Leonard’s, Shoreditch at the conclusion of a national tour. In a very well conceived and planned programme, they traced the influence of Jean Mouton on composers of the following century, notably Cristóbel de Morales, whose Missa Quaeramus cum pastoribus formed the nucleus of the programme. After the opening motet Alma Redemptoris Mater by Victoria, the latest of the composers represented, we heard Mouton’s motet Quaeramus cum pastoribus, a work that stayed in the repertoire of the Sistine Chapel for more than 100 years and survives in 27 manuscripts and printed sources now to be found as far apart as Aberdeen and Guatemala. It is the best known of a series of ‘Noë’ motets found in the Sistine Chapel archive, the result of the Medici Pope Leo X whose after-dinner entertainment seems to have been based on these sacred, but non-liturgical motets. The concert also included two other such Noë motets from Mouton: Noë, noë, noë, psallite noë and Puer natus est nobis.
Mouton’s Quaeramus cum pastoribus formed the basis of parody masses and motets from many later composers. What made it so attractive to others was clear from the start of the Marian Consort’s performance, the opening high-low voice contrast evolving into a wonderful essay on imitative polyphonic writing, the four parts often working in pairs, notably in the cries of Noë at the end of each section, but coming together for the broader Jesum natum passage. There is a sense of continual movement, which also characterised the other pieces based on Mouton’s motet.
Morales’ Missa Quaeramus cum pastoribus is an extraordinary example of the art of parody writing. Going well beyond a simple reconstruction, Morales takes elements of the original motet but immediately adds his own stamp, not least in added a second bass line to the texture, and elaborating Mouton’s opening melodic line with these two bass voices imitatively intertwining with a faster motif then taken up by the other voices. As with Mouton, there is a sense of continual movement within the texture once the five voices have entered. We also heard a rare performance of the double choir setting of Quaeramus cum pastoribus by Annibale Stabile, a pupil (perhaps) of Palestrina, and successor to Victoria at the German College in Rome. Published 60 years after Mouton’s death, this took the original motet and re-cast it in the polychoral style of Rome.
Amongst many other inter-linked composers and styles, we also heard Guerrero’s Pastores loquebantur, also found in the Sistine Chapel archives. This included some delightful moments of word painting, including a musical depiction of the shepherds tumbling over themselves in their haste to find Mary and the baby Jesus. The question of dynamics in music like this raised a question towards the end of this piece, as Rory McCleery retained the crescendo volume throughout the final passage referring to Mary’s pondering of these things in her heart – a passage that, to me at least, perhaps deserved a more reflective volume. It segued into the jubilant Alleluia at the same volume.
The Marian Consort produced a splendid sound in the helpful acoustics of St Leonard’s Shoreditch. I liked the good natured and humorous way that their director Rory McCleery introduced the pieces, including his reading of some of the entries from a ‘workplace assessment’ of several singers from the Sistine Chapel choir of the period. I was also impressed by the way that he went to stand next to the singers, who all bowed at the end of each piece, rather than taking personal bows that exclude the singers as many small choir conductors are want to do.