95 percent perfection

Music of the Tudors
Andrew Mellor, Magasinet Klassisk
Onsdag, 27. september Link til originalartikel

***** (5 stars out of 6)

By Andrew Mellor

Henry VIII probably believed the most important composer of his reign was himself. History has deemed that it was actually Robert Fayrfax (1464-1521), a highly respected musician who made significant innovations in the field of the Mass for five voices. Fayrfax’s polyphonic vocal works had a big influence on subsequent English composers including Ludford and Tallis. It’s easy to hear why. His music has both presence and character and is extremely well built. A good example is his most beautiful Mass setting of all: the Missa Tecum Principium, which Paul Hillier and Ars Nova Copenhagen presented at Garnisonskirken on Sunday. 

The Mass combines the florid display common to the Golden Age of English polyphony with careful control. Fayrfax uses harmony with structural intelligence and does the same with his scoring; at key moments in the mass text the harmonies appear to blossom outwards or retreat inwards and so do the vocal textures. That was one problem area in Ars Nova’s performance. It was fine when Fayrfax’s textures devolved downward towards a tight cluster of men’s voices (velvety smooth in the case of Ars Nova). But when the change was in the other direction, the ensemble’s sopranos could sound stretched and some of the complex lines insecure. At one point in the long Credo, they nearly fell apart completely. 

But this ensemble brings a special, delectable sound to music of the period, more subtly expressive than rousing and boisterous. In the Mass’s Gloria, Hillier invested the music with an understated rhythmic kick; others would have pushed ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ a little harder but Hiller had more subtle ways of underlining the movement’s culmination. Things started to flow with more warmth and ease in the later movements, with a thrilling sense of kinetic flow and human enjoyment towards the end of the Credo. We heard a guarded shift in colour at ‘Deum de deo, lumen de lumini’ (God from God, light from light) and Fayrfax’s highly unusual downward cadence at ‘descendit de cœlis’ (‘came down from heaven’) was handled with skill and more careful evocation. The unusual harmonic twists in the third statement of ‘Agnus Dei’ were skillfully negotiated and proved that Fayrfax always has a harmonic trick up his sleeve. 

Hillier chose to disperse the Mass movements with music from later periods that provided linguistic, theological and aesthetic contrasts. To Father, Son and Holy Ghost by Christopher Tye (1505-1573) received a calm, centred performance. None of the harmonic ‘false relations’ were over-egged as they can be by English choirs. When As We Sat in Babylon by Richard Farrant (1530-1580) is a highly unusual work in which a soprano soloist drapes expressive lines over a humming texture, with refrains repeated by the whole choir in the manner of a verse anthem. Kate Macoboy’s solos were beautifully sculpted. 

But the standout extra piece in Hillier’s concert was the set of Lamentations of Jeremiah by Alfonso Ferrabosco senior (1542/3-1588). This close, heartfelt piece from a century later than Fayrfax’s Mass was performed by just five singers, underlining the intimate, secret and even dangerous feel to music that may well have been written for devotional performance by outlawed English Catholics. It is pleading, lamenting music, more scented and emotive than any Mass setting, and the singers enjoyed its expressive capabilities as individuals while demonstrating tight blend at the same time. It provided the perfect counterpoint to the Fayrfax and a refreshing discovery. If Ars Nova weren’t utterly perfect here and elsewhere, they proved that even at 95 procent perfection they are a privilege to listen to.

Ars Nova København / Paul Hillier
Garnisonskirken, 17.9.17
Robert Fayrfax: Missa Tecum Principium
Christopher Tye: To Father Son and Holy Ghost
Alfonso Ferrabosco: Lamentations 
Richard Farrant: When as we sat in Babylon