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Seen and Heard at the Three Choirs Festival

Roger Jones, Seen and Heard (25 June, 2016)

Gloucester, which is hosting the 289th Three Choirs Festival, is in a particularly festive mood this year. It is the 800th anniversary of the coronation of Henry III, one of England’s longest reigning monarchs, which took place here in what was the St Peter’s Abbey in 1216. Another cause for celebration is that the Cathedral chimes are working again after a long silence.

I wonder if King Henry would have recognised any of the music performed by Stile Antico in their fascinating concert entitled Sacred or Profane? Here this leading a capella ensemble explored how in past times some liturgical music drew its musical inspiration from the secular tunes of the day, one example being Dufay’s Missa L’homme armé, from a popular chanson of the 15th century. Indeed, L’homme armé may well date back to the time of the Crusades. Apparently, dozens of polyphonic Mass settings were composed based on this chanson, including one by Carissimi in the 17th century. In Dufay’s religious work the chanson melody was more pronounced in the Kyries than in the decorated Christe eleison.

Clemens non Papa’s cheerful Entre vous filles de quinze ans seemed a risqué piece to sing in Gloucester Cathedral; it explains how the girls no longer come to the fountain since they have other fish to fry. But one had little sense of its lewdness in Lassus’s Gloria which impressed with its tautness and intensity.

The most uproarious and enterprising of all the works in the concert was the chanson La guerre by Janequin, performed by a vocal quartet with great gusto as they incorporated the sounds and cries of battle. Later “battle music” was to become rather hackneyed, but this early example sounded fresh and vibrant, thanks to Stile Antico’s lively rendition of it. After the vigour of the battle the foursome withdrew and let the remaining eight singers perform Victoria’s Credo which also contained a lively range of effects.

The only English item to feature on the programme was the folksong Westron Wynde, sung as a tenor solo, which was taken up by Taverner, whose Sanctus captured the Englishness of the song and was sung with great sensitivity. One of Emperor Charles V’s favourite songs Mille regretz inspired Morales to write his so-called parody mass, which with its falling melodic gestures and striking modality emphasised the seriousness of the music.
Matthew O’Donovan in his pertinent written and spoken introductions pointed out that Coppini “retrofitted Monteverdi’s original words with Latin texts”. Qui laudes tuas cantat was one of four Monteverdi compositions which added variety to the concert and well performed. There was a languorous (almost suicidal) tone to Morales’ Mort et fortune, but it gave rise to Lassus’s wonderful Magnificat in which plainsong and polyphony alternate. Plorat amare in which St Peter reflects on his denial of Christ seemed a good combination of a sacred story with secular feeling.

This was a fine and varied concert in an acoustic which is ideal for a capella singing, by an adventurous ensemble with an insatiable curiosity for music from the past which is outside the mainstream. As an encore Stile Antico sang Robert Johnson’s setting of Shakespeare’s Full Fathom Five – a reminder of another anniversary we are celebrating this year.