‘War and Peace’: The Cardinall’s Musick at Howard Assembly Room, Friday 15 Feb 2019

A programme combining dark and light, war and peace, and old and modern makes for an evening of memorable music.

The Cardinall’s Musick—named after Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, hence the early modern spelling—consists of eight voices (two sopranos, altos, tenors, basses) and conductor Patrick Craig. As the house lights dim, the group enters the stage and performs two pieces by William Byrd, who dominates the programme throughout the night.

The first is the brief and sweet ‘Kyrie’ from his Mass for Five Voices, though it seems to be arranged for eight. After this they immediately segue into the much larger and more symphonic setting of Psalm 120, ‘Ad Dominum cum tribularer’ (‘In my distress I cried unto the Lord’). Here I noticed the slight tendency—and, throughout the night, it was in particular when singing Byrd in Latin, rather than anything else—that the text was not as clear as some other choirs I had heard recently (Gesualdo Six), which led to a feeling of being slightly lost in the polyphonic mesh.

After these two, conductor Patrick Craig introduced the programme, which is based on texts concerning peace and war, making some remarks on the war of words and modern politics, which received a warm laugh from the audience. This was mostly just annoying, but I found Craig’s remark on how the word ‘Ierusalem’ is often a particularly sacred word in Byrd, shrouded with harmonic and expressive importance in many of his pieces, a genuinely enlightening one. I consequently listened out for this in the evening’s five other Byrd pieces, and did indeed catch the odd example of this.

The programme, however, next moved on to two more modern composers, the choir offering Britten’s ‘Advance, Democracy!’, an awful text lifted by good music, and James MacMillan’s setting of Charles Hamilton Sorley’s stunning Great War sonnet, ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’. MacMillan, a living composer, is the second most represented composer on the night’s programme, with four pieces, of which this was the least impressive, since in this piece he takes one of the most moving poems in English, and destroys it with a musical setting which completely undercuts its power.

For the last part of the programme’s first half, the choir return to the Renaissance with Gibbons’ ‘O Lord in thy wrath’ for six voices (one tenor and one bass briefly leaving the stage) and Byrd’s ‘Agnus Dei’ from the Mass for Five Voices. These were interleaved, however, with another composition by James MacMillan, ‘A Child’s Prayer’. Patrick Craig explains that this piece was written in response to the Dunblane Primary School Massacre of 1996, when 43-year-old Thomas Hamilton shot dead fifteen five-­year-­old children, one six­-year­ old, their teacher, and then himself. The text comes from the first communion prayer a child learns in Catholic worship (MacMillan himself being Catholic). The text and music are movingly paired, and the piece is largely carried by soprano duet. It was a slight shame that one of the sopranos’ voices gave out a little at the end of the piece, which was sustained only by these two voices. But as those who have listened to my interview with Katie Bray and Alexander Sprague will know, even professionals make mistakes on stage quite frequently: part of the job is concealing them, but sometimes nothing can be done.

The programme’s second half, like the first, opened with a ‘Kyrie’ by Byrd—this time from his Mass for Four Voices. This was followed by an involving and majestic setting of Psalm 136 (‘Super flumina Babylonis’) by Philippe de Monte, in which the text was almost completely lost. This piece, Craig later tells us, is in fact in dialogue with the next piece, Byrd’s ‘Quomodo cantabimus’. The first piece, which was apparently sent and therefore implicitly addressed to Byrd by de Monte, seems to say, ‘How can you be a Catholic in a Protestant land?’. To this Byrd replies—with one of his most joyful and light pieces—that true worship can happen wherever—an exciting dialogue for those in the scholarly know, as my readers now are!

From here we return to modern composers: MacMillan, Pärt, and MacMillan again. First is MacMillan’s setting of Psalm 42—a pleasant if unmemorable one. More notable is Pärt’s single contribution to the programme, ‘Da pacem’, which was written in commemoration of the 2004 Madrid train bombings. According to Craig, the piece is still performed annually in Madrid to this day, and is moving in its simple, Christian defiance.

Photographs by Benjamin Ealovega. Provided by Opera North.

In the next piece, ‘Alpha and Omega’, MacMillan sets lines from the Book of Revelation. Unlike MacMillan’s setting of Sorley, this piece sets the text with great sensitivity and understanding, perhaps suggesting MacMillan’s greater comfort with scripture and prophecy than with poetry. The evening then rolls to an end with Byrd’s ‘Agnus Dei’ from the Mass for Four Voices—which Craig (I think rightly) describes as one of the most beautiful of all settings of the ‘Agnus Dei’ text—and lastly with Byrd’s only English piece in the programme, ‘Prevent us, ô Lord’, which brings the evening to a sweet and simple close.

The Cardinall’s Musick, then, offer an intelligent thematic programme, rich with pieces from various periods. They prove educational in several ways and, if the singing and diction are not of the absolute first rank, they certainly do very well indeed, and I shall be seeking out their future Leeds dates.

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