St John’s Smith Square
Lassus: Alma redemptoris mater
Josquin: Missa Ave maris stella
Guerrero: Maria Magdalene et altera Maria; Ave virgo sanctissima
Matthew Martin: Sanctissima
Stravinsky: Bogoroditse devo
Isaac: Virgo prudentissima
Peter Phillips (director)
St John’s Smith Square’s 36th Christmas Festival has gone ahead as planned. That in itself is something to grant seasonal cheer, especially at what again is proving a trying time for all of us. So too was this concert from festival regulars the Tallis Scholars, with music spanning a period of more than half a millennium, from Josquin’s Missa Ave maris stella in the late fifteenth century to Matthew Martin’s 2017 reimagining of Francesco Guerrero’s motet Ave virgo santissima, first published in 1566.
The concert opened with Lassus’s polychoral motet, Alma redemptoris mater, separation and recombination of the two ‘choirs’ (four singers apiece) taking place in typically patient, unshowy unfolding from Peter Phillips and his singers. Like much of the evening’s programme, it sounded bathed in Marian radiance, albeit of distinctly different varieties that yet all remained worlds distant from the concerted likes of Monteverdi or Mozart. In context, Lassus’s eight-part antiphon—he also set the text for five and, twice, six voices—sounded almost as if an overture.
If so, it was an overture to the mass honouring the five hundredth anniversary of the death of Josquin des Prez. We heard a properly responsorial ‘Kyrie’, its opening upward fifth signalling to all and sundry the cantus firmus that permeates so much of the setting in a motivic fashion it is difficult not to think of as ‘modern’, however problematic and ultimately unsatisfactory the notion may be. The ‘Gloria’ offered a not entirely dissimilar sense of unfolding and building towards climax such as we had heard in Lassus. Words were never underlined, yet nonetheless ‘spoke’ as Phillips and the Tallis Scholars traced, even inhabited Josquin’s work’s musical contours. (And no, it does not seem to me anachronistic here to speak of a musical work.) A glowing, full-toned ‘Sanctus’ contrasted nicely with the duets of the ‘Benedictus’. The crowning canonical writing of the ‘Agnus Dei’, canons recalling earlier writing and seemingly underlining the form of threefold petition, was permitted a sense of the expansive: in performance as in work, one might say. At any rate, there was a sense not only of conclusion but of culmination, without attempting to transplant later values not at home here.
Following the interval, we turned to two motets by Guerrero. His Maria Magdalene et altera Maria tells of that celebrated discovery on Easter morning. Here were a different voice, method, and subject matter; a different radiance too, I think. Yet again, there was that sense of patient unfolding and building unobtrusively towards a fine climax on ‘surrexit’. Our Saviour was risen indeed. There was a graver, more hymnal beauty to be heard and felt in Ave virgo sanctissima. Indeed, the prayerful quality in which I felt involved, no mere observer, imparted a sense of physical and metaphysical kneeling. Romantic nonsense, perhaps, though harmless if so. Martin’s reimagining, written to accompany the original, had Guerrero’s lines travel in lines of refracted, relative dissonance, within a tonal framework. Intonation sounded spot on, as surely it must be. It was rather lovely to hear in context.
The radical simplicity of Stravinsky’s Bogoroditse Devo quite simply brooked no dissent, as jewel-like an ‘object’ as, say, the Octet. It simply ‘was’—and doubtless will be. Arvo Pärt’s Virgencita took a lot longer to say rather less, yet the performance was one of evident fondness, warmth and patience bringing ‘holy minimalist’ process to the fore. Some attractive, almost Poulenc-like chords (in abstracto, not functionally), quite resplendent in performance, made the time pass more quickly. The encore, Pärt’s minute-long setting of the same Old Slavonic text set by Stravinsky was written for King’s College Cambridge's Service of Nine Lessons of Carols. The singers imparted a welcome sense of carolling dance to its despatch.
In between we heard Heinrich Isaac’s magnificent Virgo prudentissima, making the case for Archduke—soon Emperor—Maximilian’s piety, the Virgin his heavenly advocate. When compared with, say, Josquin, display of musical intellect seemed more overt. Canonic procedures came more strongly to the fore, propelling words in a fashion that had very much its own direction and directedness. Not for nothing did Webern write his dissertation on Isaac. This was an arresting polyphonic and cosmogonic tour past dominions, fiery cherubim, angels, archangels and others both above and below, to the Mother of Heaven and thence to Him who had taken her up. Yet we fittingly returned to her, ‘excellent as the Sun’, and sounding so. Hierarchies of music and theology created and reinforced one another, preparing us, so it seemed, for further, Christmas mysteries.