CHRISTMAS CONCERT: ST JOHN’S, SMITH SQUARE
(The Daily Telegraph - 21 December 2006)
Thrilling echoes of turbulent times
This concert was devoted to two composers who epitomised those turbulent times in music: Thomas Tallis and his pupil – and eventual colleague and business partner – William Byrd.
If there was a theme evident in the sound itself, it was the fierceness of the doctrinal debates over music. On the one hand we had the ostentatiously plain English psalm tunes by Tallis. These were written for the new English liturgy, so comprehensibility was the rule. On the other, we had long, glorious swathes of old-style Catholic polyphony, written by both composers even after the Reformation (Queen Elizabeth turned a blind eye to their religious backsliding). Here the words seem to go on so long that you forgot what the first syllable was: in any case, you hardly cared, because the tangle of melodic lines was so gorgeous in itself.
These performances eloquently revealed the virtues of both styles. Tallis’s psalm tunes may look plain, but when their melodies are made shapely and supple, and the words uttered with conviction, they’re revealed to be little gems. The bigger, more elaborate pieces needed a different approach. They’re written in long, overlapping paragraphs which can so easily lose their tension and sag. But by cleverly varying the pace and making the counterpoint viidly clear, the director, Andrew Carwood, created a thrilling cumulative tension. The ending of Tallis’s Salve intemerata virgo was as overwhelming as a Mahler symphony, at a tenth of the volume.