Ensemble Gombert’s second and final contribution to the Local Heroes series at the Melbourne Recital Centre saw the Ensemble canvass just over a century’s worth of music for the English Chapel Royal. Director John O’Donnell’s selection of works for the program of motets made a strong case for the individual character of the Chapel Royal. The Ensemble’s program took us from the ornate “Eton Choirbook Style” exemplified by Robert Fayrfax (a composer represented in the Choirbook) and William Mundy (whose work is not represented in the Choirbook) to the rich array of styles that proliferated in the Marian and Elizabethan courts — everything from a revival of the Eton Choirbook style (particularly common in the Marian period as a way of reconnecting the court with its Catholic heritage) to the sparer syllabic and madrigal-influenced music typical in the Elizabethan period.
The program opened with the setting of Salve radix commonly called the “Rose Canon” for the style of its visual presentation in British Library Royal MS 11 E XI. This is a work more important for its look (the music is wound around the image of a rose in the manuscript) than its sound — a pale imitation of one manner of Josquin’s — but Salve radix set the scene for the reliance of the English court and its music on Flemish models.
Two undeniably great works followed this, Fayrfax’s Magnificat Regale and Mundy’s Vox patris caelestis, the latter showing strong continuities with the former (and with Tallis’ Gaude gloriosa, to which it is probably closely related in time) despite the fact that Mundy was born eight years after Fayrfax’s death. The Ensemble handled the episodic nature of the Magnificat well, although I would have like stronger characterisation of the polyphonic sections, which are remarkable for showcasing Fayrfax’s almost endless textural and rhythmic imagination. For me, the weakest work on the program was the epically (nearly eighteen minutes) long Vox patris caelestis. The challenges of a work like this include giving a strongly narrative sense of the architecture of the work — which, without care, will just seem an unending and frigid display of complex and unmotivated counterpoint — and engaging deeply enough with the sumptuousness of the texture. The Ensemble was weak on both of these points. Loss of the sense of the architecture, and a willingness to commit to the profound melodiousness of almost all parts almost all the time, led to the work sounding a little like a succession of interval calculations rather than a series of simultaneously melodies, parts in duet and trios, and planned moments of mass. Linked to this is the Ensemble’s weakness in creating generous and lush sound: a certain whiteness in soprano sound is probably inevitable in a work that is so demanding in tessitura, but the altos and tenors need to work harder in creating liquid density in the centre of the composition and the basses needed to give more sense of the melodiousness of their parts.
The last five works on the program — the well-known Ave Maria by Robert Parsons, the Lamentations by Tallis and three motets by Byrd from Cantiones…sacrae (1575) not only marked the kind of radical shift of taste that occupied that Elizabethan court, but all saw the Ensemble on much stronger ground. Parsons’ Ave Maria richly deserved the warm response the audience gave it, and saw the Ensemble bring forth the kind of lush sound that Vox patris caelestis had called for. Tallis’ Lamentations were performed with monumental severity and intensity, close attention paid to the audibility and rhetoric of the text, so evidently at the forefront of Tallis’ conception of this piece. The Ensemble’s performance of the three Byrd motets — Emendemus in melius for Ash Wednesday, the hymn Siderum rector and the Advent motet Attollite portas — reminded me of what a remarkable composer he was, seemingly effortlessly bridging the gap between the style of his”teacher”, Tallis (Emendemus in melius is close to the sound-world of Tallis’ Lamentations) and more modern styles such as the note nere of Siderum rector and the madrigalian style of Attollite portas. The Ensemble’s Emendemus in melius was appropriately grave, but some more of the lightness and grace of the balletto style within which Byrd conceived Siderum rector seemed called for. A heroic and jubilant Attollite portas concluded the program, fittingly sending the audience off into the night.
John Weretka reviewed Ensemble Gombert’s performance in the Salon of the Melbourne Recital Centre, on October 4, 2016.
The picture is of director John O’Donnell with some of the choir.