Concert: Wigmore Hall

by Ivan Hewett (The Telegraph - 9th December 2014)

Religion has always been embroiled in politics, as this concert reminded us. One of the glorious vocal pieces we heard by Robert Fayrfax (born 550 years ago this year) appeared to be a straightforward song in praise of the Virgin Mary. So why the long genealogy in the text, showing Christ’s ancestry on the female side? Because the piece was paid for by Queen Elizabeth, whose Yorkist blood bolstered her husband Henry VII’s claim to the throne. Run your eye down the first letters of each line, and you’ll see in Latin the words, ‘Elisabeth Queen of England’. This piece praises her as much as the Virgin.

This was one of many fascinating insights dropped into the evening’s music-making by Anthony Carwood, director of The Cardinall’s Musick. The real revelation was just how fabulously rich and intricate sacred music was, at the height of England’s old Catholic culture. Fayrfax was the leading figure, but there were many others. One was John Plummer, whose sweetly euphonious setting of lines from the Song of Songs was also sung. The lines of the three male voices curled lovingly round each other, like the cooing turtle-doves mentioned in the text. “Arise my love, my fair one,” says the last verse, and Carwood added a touch of urgency in response; one of many occasions when his tiny changes of tempo heightened the meaning of the words.

Dropped among the sacred pieces were one or two secular ones. There was a gravely beautiful song by Edmund Turges (born 1450) in praise of the idea of a Christian Knight fighting to protect the rights of the ‘commons’ (was this a plea for ‘people power’ against an over-mighty King?) But most of the music was in praise of the Virgin, and most of it was by Fayrfax. This concert revealed a composer of amazing, almost indulgently rich fantasy. The tangle of different rhythms in his little English-language piece Most Clere of Colour emerged with mesmerising clarity, as did the tangy major-minor clashes in Ave Lumen Gratias.

The real glories of the concert were the big set-pieces when all ten singers were on stage, such as O Maria Deo Gratia. The variety of texture Fayfax teased from them was amazing. Sometimes one high voice tiptoed over a bass with nothing in between; sometimes a few voices in the mid-range were cunningly interwoven. When finally all the voices came together, the effect was overwhelming.