Cantoris – Amaryllis and Absalom

Madrigals by BYRD, TALLIS, GIBBONS and TOMKINS
Cantoris, conducted by Richard Apperley (guest conductor)

St.Peter’s Church, Willis St., Wellington, Saturday 9th May, 2009

Cantoris is one of a number of Wellington-based choirs whose activities serve to bring to local audiences a richly diverse range of the choral repertoire in committed and skilful performances. St. Peter’s Church on Willis St. provided a picturesque and elegant setting for this, the first Cantoris concert for 2009, featuring madrigals, sacred and secular, with one’s pleasure further enhanced by a beautifully-printed programme containing texts and commentaries about the music. Conducting Cantoris for the first time was Richard Apperley, Assistant Organist at Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul, and previously of Lincoln Cathedral in the UK, where he also formed and conducted the Cathedral Chamber Choir. With the help of Tessa Coppard, the choir’s assistant conductor, who rehearsed the programme before Richard Apperley arrived, the singers were amply prepared for the not inconsiderable demands made by a widely-ranging programme of sacred and secular music by Tudor composers.

In a programme note, Richard Apperley confessed to being a devotee of the music of Thomas Tompkins (1572-1656), a composer whose work began the concert with a setting of a Psalm text O sing unto the Lord a new song, a work which demonstrates, according to Apperley, the composer’s fondness for full-blooded expressiveness, using constantly changing tonalities and syncopated rhythms. The singers got over a somewhat nervous beginning to the piece, with tones and rhythms that strengthened in focus as the piece progressed. The voices took time to properly blend, but their differentiations added colour to the lovely antiphonal effects from the women, the whole acquiring a kind of appropriately raw fervour by the time the “Alleluias” at the end of the piece were delivered. Tomkins was again the composer of two laments using Biblical texts from the story of King David, concerning the deaths of his sons, Jonathan and Absalom – the first Then David mourned challengingly slow, taxing the sopranos with their high entries in thirds, and the choir elsewhere, and the second When David heard having a particularly “stricken” quality, well-captured by the voices, the performance extremely moving at the words “O my son”, and handling the “layered” receding ending into silence with control and skill.

Tomkins’ six-voice anthem Woe is me followed, the voices supported by a nicely sustained organ accompaniment. The music has an attractive “rolling” aspect which the choir brought out well amid exchanges of phrases between the women’s voices. Another anthem,
O God the proud are risen against me set for eight voices, vividly evokes conflict and its resolution – although the basses took a while to get the pitch of their phrases, the sopranos came to the rescue with beautifully-held long notes at “slow to anger”, and the choir achieved a properly celebratory climax with the words “great in goodness and truth”.

In general the choir seemed more at ease performing Orlando Gibbons’ music, with rounder tones and securer harmonic tuning. Gibbons’ madrigal The Silver Swan brought forth nice work from all sections, as did a second madrigal Ah dear heart, whose sensitive beginning inspired sweet-toned work from the tenors and later, sonorous archways of splendour from the basses  with long lines held together well. William Byrd’s work, too, seemed to bring out a consistent strain of engagement with Cantoris, whose voices under Richard Apperley’s direction caught the infectious gait of the madrigal This sweet and merry month of May with its skipping rhythms at “for pleasure of the joyful time”, its pleasantly pastoral merrymaking aspect contrasting strongly with the meditative beauty of the following Lullaby, before switching back to pastoral themes with Though Amaryllis dance in green,a tricky, syncopated rhythm-feast of a madrigal, confidently sung by the choir, relishing the piece’s many-stranded aspect and “snapping” rhythms.

Byrd’s Vigilate was another work in which the choir gave of its best, the strength of the writing matched by confident, declamatory tones at the outset, realising the urgency and directness of the work’s focus, with lines and interchanges kept going with spirit and clarity (a nice touch being the basses’ deliberately “gauche” timbres at the moment of cock-crow). Perhaps not every opportunity was taken to characterise the music fully, but the final cries of “Vigilante” went with an infectious swing. Byrd’s great contemporary was Thomas Tallis, whose five-part Te Deum concluded the programme, a hymn of praise whose English text allowed us to savour some of the composer’s word-painting, and appreciate the choir’s responses to the text – for example, catching the music’s rolling aspect of “The Holy Church throughout all the world”, and responding to both the surge of grandeur at “Thou art the King of Kings, O Christ” and the harsh pointedness of “the sharpness of death”. Again, if not all of the composer’s variation of mood and feeling was fully realised throughout, there was still a sense engendered of a great musical journey, with Richard Apperley and the choir making the most of “O Lord, in Thee have I trusted” at the triumphant conclusion of the piece.

Two organ solos played by Richard Apperley, one by Tomkins and the other by Byrd, gave even more variety to a concert whose repertoire and presentation made an interesting and absorbing impression throughout a most enjoyable evening.

Review by Peter Mechen, published on Middle-C