Songs of Sundrie Natures

Reviewer: Jennifer Gall, Canberra Times, 28 March 2010

This concert was one of those rare occasions when it seems that the elements conspired to assist in elevating the music to another plane. The performance seemed to partly translate the golden autumn atmosphere and the anticipation of approaching Easter into music.

A well-balanced program offered sacred and secular works by the superstars of English Tudor and Jacobean music. Tallis’s Third Mode Melody for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter setting Psalm 2:1,2 as text opened the concert, the singers entering confidently with excellent diction. Throughout the demanding performance, the choir maintained the power of conviction in their singing, addressing the texts and music to the audience, animating the power of the words.

O Nata Lux, again by Tallis, was sung with sleek breath control and phrasing by each section of the choir, and the texture of the choral singing reached a climax in the Agnus Dei a4 by Byrd. Each vocal layer overlayed created a curtain of translucent sound – producing an extraordinary space that was partly human voices and part evocation of an unquantifiable spiritual dimension. The sacred works were the most assured performances in terms of rhythmic stability and secure intonation.

Of the secular works, How Great Delight by Tomkins reproduced this sensual text to great effect, cleverly juxtaposing contrapuntal sections, to empathise exquisite moments with powerful unison vocal lines such as ‘how great delight from those sweet lips I taste’.

The final three works were exquisite. In Tallis’s O Sacrum Conviviumthe performance activated an all-pervasive equanimity, the mystery at the heart of the Christian Blessed Sacrament. Byrd’s O Quam Gloriosum demonstrated expert interplay of each of the parts and the unique energy generated by this particular era in English liturgical music.

Very fittingly, the masterpiece of the evening came at the conclusion, with the performance of Videte Miraculum by Thomas Tallis. With the choir divided into two ensembles, the choral sections were interspersed with quite otherworldly plainchant – contrasting the meditations of the individual with the communal expression of the choir. This really was one of the most extraordinarily beautiful pieces of sacred music I have ever heard performed.

As conductor David Mackay remarked, it seems to be an extremely rare piece of liturgical music, not performed often and as such we were among the most privileged souls who have heard these ancient and glorious sounds.