I have often wondered what it is that distinguishes English church music of the late Renaissance: what is it that sets it apart from the polyphonic lingua franca of the period across the rest of Europe? I have come to the conclusion that it might have something to do with ‘soul’. If the music of Palestrina, for example, is the music of angels – ethereal, cerebral, ascetic, of the spirit – then the sacred works of composers like Tallis and Byrd are somehow more concerned with earthier passions, grounded in man’s experience of divinity. They speak the language less of a distant and transcendent God than of a very human one, immediate and incarnate, who is embedded in our joys and sorrows.
Thus, on first seeing the programme to be presented on Sunday 19 July 2015 by Gallicantus for Concerts at Cratfield, subtitled Sweet Laments of the English Renaissance, I had some misgivings. How might we, as an audience, be so captivated over a period of almost two hours that we could remain emotionally engaged with a programme devoted almost exclusively to the themes of lamentation, separation and desolation?
I need not have worried! From the opening of Tallis’ first setting of Te Lucis ante terminum it was clear that here was an ensemble that could take us with total conviction on a journey into the depths of ‘soul’. Within moments I had the strangely disorientating feeling that we were being privileged to be experiencing less a performance than a direct portal into the musical imagination and spiritual anguish of the foremost composers of the Tudor period. Perhaps it had something to do with the unobtrusive restraint and poise of the ensemble’s ‘stage presentation’ which allowed the music to speak so eloquently and directly. (Much of the programme was ‘un-conducted’, suggesting a level of trust and confidence that only comes from the most meticulous preparation and a deep and shared musical understanding amongst the members of the ensemble.) Perhaps, too, it came from the seemingly effortless delivery of some of the most demanding music in the choral repertoire, not least the hugely challenging setting of the Lamentations by Robert Whyte with its expansive contrapuntal lines, awkward tessituras and extended vocal ranges. What was certain was that here was a company of five extraordinarily gifted and dedicated singers who were totally immersed, both emotionally and intellectually, in their chosen repertoire and committed to presenting every subtlety and nuance of the music with a passion and depth of understanding that I have seldom heard before in live performance.
Time and space do not allow me an in-depth appraisal of every piece presented; and to single out highlights in such a holistically integrated performance might seem to diminish the whole. Were I to select special moments it might only be to present microcosms of Gallicantus’ admirable attention to detail in respect of ensemble, balance, tuning, colour, diction and overall musical integrity throughout the whole programme. Not least among those magical moments were the wonderfully wrought contrapuntal melismas on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet which precede and encapsulate the mood of each verse in both settings of the Lamentations. Each akin to a beautifully illustrated capital from an illuminated manuscript, Gallicantus painted every intricate line with the most exquisite colours.
Whilst Tallis’ and Whyte’s settings of the Lamentations draw us into the text with enchanting ‘preludes’, Byrd’s setting of Tristitia et anxietas leaves the richest jewels till last. Having pierced our hearts throughout, using almost every device in the musical language of the period to paint the grief of the text, Byrd ‘turns the knife’ through two ravishing ‘codettas’ at the close of each verse. I am in no doubt that in such a carefully planned and balanced programme Gallicantus would have recognised exactly the effect this choice as a closing piece would have on the audience. The ensuing moments of reverential silence before the richly deserved applause spoke volumes about an ensemble who can present such beautiful music in such a thoroughly engaging, passionate and polished way. ‘Awesome’ is a word that is used too lightly these days; in the context of this concert it is entirely appropriate.
Postscript: During the interval I took a walk around the churchyard and found the following inscription on a beautifully sculpted gravestone, echoing, it seemed to me, the theme of the concert: ‘Look around and cherish the beauty’. Perhaps it is in the deepest sorrow that our hearts are opened to the highest beauty.