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Reviews > Visual arts >

Glorious Byrd and Tallis

AFTER a couple of seasons of camping out, the Spitalfields Festival has returned to Christ Church. Hawksmoor’s masterpiece, an early result of the Fifty New Churches Act of 1711, has been magnificently restored over a period of nearly 30 years. The spire glows in the evening light; inside, the coffered ceiling shines like icing on a wedding cake.

Above the performers, the lion and the unicorn forcibly remind the congregation of the connection between Church and throne. How appropriate it was, then, to be listening last month to the music of Tallis and Byrd, composers writing when it was at least injudicious to profess Roman Catholicism.

After a suitably vigorous account of Tye’s Omnes gentes, plaudite, The Cardinall’s Musick, singing one to a part, embarked on Byrd’s setting of the Propers for Easter Day. First came the Gradual Haec dies, then the Sequence Victimae paschali. In the intimacy of the exchange between the disciples and Mary, one had a moving glimpse of family worship in a recusant chapel. The pictorial representation in the Offertory of the earth trembling was vividly done.

The Propers were interspersed with the Ordinary, chanted in the gallery by the sopranos until all came together for the Ite missa est. We must hope and pray that the Cardinall’s Musick’s recording of all Byrd’s sacred music makes a successful transition from the ASV label to Hyperion.

A welcome airing of a part-song by Howells from the 1953 collection A Garland for the Queen was followed by three secular pieces by Tallis. Judith Weir’s Vertue was a première: a beautiful setting of three poems by George Herbert, commissioned in memory of a Festival benefactor, Peter Lerwill, with funds provided by his friends. The eponymous first piece began with sopranos and altos and built up towards a tutti in the third stanza. The whole set, “simple and hymn-like” in the composer’s words, was a fine exercise in sonority: not predictable, though, with its sudden ending for two voices.

And when it comes to sonority, what better choice than Tallis’s 40-part motet, Spem in alium, which concluded the concert? It nearly sent that coffered ceiling into orbit; but what a pity that Andrew Carwood, the conductor, didn’t make use of the gallery.

There was more Tallis, in this putative quincentenary year, in the return visit of the choir of St John’s College, Cambridge. David Hill conducted a gripping performance of the Lamentations of Jeremiah: excellent dynamic contrasts in “Beth” and “Daleth”, and a whispered “Ierusalem, Ierusalem” in the former. He relished all the false relations, but he was rather let down by the breathy tone of the altos on the top line. In the motet Videte miraculum, it was the basses who were weak.

Try as they might, the singers could not disguise their nature in the spirituals from Tippett’s A Child of our Time. Wholly successful were the Victorian and Edwardian anthems, cleverly juxtaposed with motets by Mendelssohn. Stanford’s Coelos ascendit hodie, sensibly taken in the same key as Beati quorum via, rose to a splendid climax; and the intonation at “Visi sunt oculis” in Iustorum animae was well-nigh perfect. Charles Wood’s “Hail, gladdening light”, a sort of cousin to Coelos ascendit, was slightly marred by an exaggerated rallentando. If the E. W. Naylor shocker Vox dicentis lacked the last ounce of sentiment at the end, it was probably just as well.

Four days later, on 20 June, a female group called Canty, presumably modelled on Anonymous 4, presented Flame of Ireland: an “ Office for St Brigid of Kildare”. Thanks to the vagaries of the Circle line, I arrived hot, bothered and nearly late. The white-toned chanting of the plainsong, mostly in unison, occasionally over a drone, was the perfect stress antidote. The gentle harp accompaniment, improvised by William Taylor on a wire-strung clarsach, was an added delight. “Incantation”, a homophonic setting by Sheena Phillips to an English text based on Gaelic poetry, honoured the saint with pervasive repetitions of her name.

The influence of plainchant was notable in Umbra sumus, a Spitalfields commission from 2003 by Terry Mann, performed later the same evening. “Truths and shadows” was otherwise a programme of sacred and secular pieces by composers including Byrd and Claude Le Jeune. Trinity Baroque, a mixed group of six led by the tenor Julian Podger, made full use of the space and sang like angels.

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