In honour of the Virgin

In honour of the Virgin
The Cardinall’s Musick
St John’s, Smith Square. 14 December 2016

facebook_1482140390703 (1).jpgThe 31st St John’s, Smith Square Christmas Festival features most of the usual suspects, including regulars, The Cardinall’s Musick. As is typical of their concerts, the focus was on Catholic liturgical music from the Renaissance, on this occasion in honour of the Virgin Mary. In a ‘greatest hits’ line-up of Renaissance composers, the first half was built around Lassus’s Missa Osculeter me osculo oris sui alternating with motets by Victoria; the second centered on Byrd’s Propers for the Nativity of the Virgin Mary and concluded with Palestrina’s Magnificat primi toni a 8. 

I have never quite understood how the Song of Songs managed to get accepted into the Bible. However much commentators from the Jewish or Christian tradition attempt to find allegorical links in the Song of Solomon, in the latter case, with the New Testament stories, it remains so obviously an evocation of sexual love of a most explicit kind: the closest that Solomon could get to internet porn. Making up for the lack of references to the Virgin Mary in the New Testament, the medieval Church managed somehow to find links between the naughtiness of Solomon’s tales with the love of Mary for her son and his apparent father. Quite whether composers of the period saw through this deceit is unknown, but it did give them a chance to composer some ravishing music to the ravishing texts.

The Song of Songs opens with the text Osculeter me osculo oris sui (“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his lips / for your breasts as better than wine” etc.). Lassus set the text as a motet and a parody Mass setting, both in 8 parts. The distinctive left-right swing from side to side of the two choirs is evident throughout both motet and the Mass sections. Usually overlapping with each other, (and often switching to a right-left swing) the two choirs merge into the full choir of 8 voices at key moments. Individual words and phrases are emphasised in a variety of ways, notably in the et incarnatus est and Crucifixus section of the Credo. As is so often the case in modern performance, The Cardinall’s Musick grouped all eight singers together, with no gap between the two choirs, thereby slightly reducing the stereo polychoral effects.

The intervening four-part Victoria motets were sung by four singers, giving a welcome change of aural texture to the eight-part Lassus Mass. The whole first half was treated as a liturgical sequence, with a request for no applause until the concluding chanted Ite missa est. 

The second half opened with three Spanish composers covering a span of some around 150 years – each having died before the other was born. I would have preferred them to have been sung in chronological order, but that is a personal thing with me. The earliest was Juan de Anchieta, a musician in the Granada court of Isabella of Castile from 1489. His rather lugubrious alternatim setting of Salve Regina uses the lower voices, an effect rather compromised by having the chanted sections sung by two solo sopranos from alternate sides of the audience. I can’t imagine any occasion in the early Renaissance where this combination of distant sopranos chanting would have been likely. The musical style was interesting, with its lingering memories of Medieval compositional textures, including open 5th cadences.

Francisco Guerrero was born about five years after Anchieta’s death. Although much traveled, his repeatedly returned to his birthplace of Seville. His jubilant and richly-scored 8-part Regina caeli contrasted overlapping chant passages in the higher voices with florid imitative part writing from the combined four-part choirs. The Alleluias that conclude each line are absorbed into the texture until the final one, which is given an expansive and joyous treatment. The youngest composer in this sequence was Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, one of the many Spanish musicians who emigrated to Mexico. His grand double choir Ave regina caelorum showed early signs of the Baroque with its tumbling lines, exotic rhythms and rapid scale passages.

A sequence of music for the Mass of the Nativity of the Virgin by William Byrd followed, the motet-style Propers contrasted with plainsong, including the attractively melismatic Kyrie and Sanctus of the Mass IX. The Alleluias that concluded each motet were particularly attractive and, in the case of Beata es, almost skittish. Composed for domestic use by wealthy closet Catholics, this sounded equally effective sung with gusto in a larger acoustic. After an ebullient plug for their CDs sales, the evening finished with Palestrina’s triumphant eight-voice Magnificat primi toni, a rather rapid excursion through the text, concluding with an unusually short Amen. 

The Cardinall’s Musick are not the only group that re-use very old publicity photographs, but theirs are rather extreme, not least in the fact that, as far as I could tell, only two of the singers in the group photograph were actually singing, one of which was a stand-in.

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