A Flemish Christmas
Shepherds, what have you seen?
Renaissance Singers, David Allinson
St George’s Bloomsbury. 17 December 2016
Music by Clemens non Papa, Josquin, Verdelot, Gombert and Willaert.
The Renaissance Singers have a history that goes back to 1944. They played an important part in the revival of interest in Renaissance sacred polyphony as the early music movement grew and developed. Their 2017 Christmas concert, in the architecturally important Hawksmoor church of St George’s Bloomsbury, sensibly avoided carols and concentrated on what they do best: singing Renaissance music. Under the inspired direction of their musical director, David Allinson, they presented a programme of seasonal music centered on the composer Clemens non Papa and his Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis, together with music by Josquin, Verdelot, Gombert and Willaert.
The excellent and comprehensive programme notes (by choir member Tony Damer) explained the background of the concert, including an interesting explanation for Clemens’ enigmatic nickname non Papa (‘not the Pope’) as meaning something akin to ‘not an Angel’. He was certainly a very naughty boy, described in one (not surprisingly, unsuccessful) employment reference as being ‘a drunk and a rake’. Perhaps as a result he remained one of the few Flemish composers of the day to remain in the Low Countries rather than joining his many contemporaries in Italy.
Clemens’ parody Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis (Shepherds, what have you seen?) is based on his own motet of the same name. The motet’s distinctive opening interval of a fifth recurs in every section of the Mass, but is tellingly inverted at the start of the Agnus. Both motet and Mass have a rather dense imitative counterpoint texture, the five voices interweaving and overlapping in that distinctively Renaissance style of musical knitting. The expansive opening Kyrie demonstrated the harmonic interest that resulted from Clemens’ closely woven lines, and also introduced us to some tricky, but very well-managed vocal entries on notes that are not obviously part of the harmonic background to the musical lines. Similarly impressive was the musica ficta (sharpening or flattening notes to accord with Renaissance ideas of true intervals) creating some lovely little moments of musical tension.
The other mass sections (the Credo was omitted) reinforced Clemens’ style, the words an almost abstract background to the music, with lines of text overlapping each other. But despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of the textural contrast found in some of Clemens’ contemporaries (and, notably, his predecessor, Josquin Desprez) his music developed a real sense of musical momentum and power, helped in this performance by David Allinson’s excellent control of the peaks and troughs. The Sancus, at a slower pace than the other movements, had the voices tumbling over each other in the Hosannas, in contrast to the subdued Benedictus, sung without the sopranos. The concluding Agnus was the most powerful of the movements, bringing the Mass to a climax.
The contrast with Josquin was emphasised with the latter’s powerful six-part O Virgo virginum, the variety in texture as compared to Clemens being pronounced. In one of David Allinson’s entertaining introductory talks (most with culinary references), he described Josquin as the “Beethoven of Renaissance music”, who set the style for generations or more of composers.
The 21 members of the Renaissance Singers coped brilliantly with the complexity of the music, singing in the mixed-voice format that encouraged them to listen to the other voices. This relies on a much larger degree of self-confidence from individual singers. They took some risks when singing at very low volumes, particularly in the few pieces sung by just four singers. It is always difficult for a very small group to sing very quietly without sounding as though they have lost confidence, but they just about managed it, the riskiest such moment coming in Gombert’s Angelus Domini. This excellent, and very well attended, concert was just the thing to contrast with the endless Messiah’s and carol concerts of the seasons.