It may be difficult for us to imagine a Christmas when ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ did not take centre stage, but Fretwork’s concert ‘An Elizabethan Christmas’ succeeded in immersing us in a distant time when ‘Yuletide’ was observed so very differently.
Elizabethan I’s reign saw an approach to celebrating the season that was quite distinct from even that of her father. While under Henry VIII the festivities were fairly hedonistic, a greater air of restraint hung over her court as the Protestant ethic became increasingly embedded in it. The new mood was supported well by the compositions of William Byrd, although he was a Roman Catholic, Antony Holborne, whose dates coincided largely with the Queen’s own, and the ‘younger generation’ comprising Martin Peerson and Orlando Gibbons.
This delightful concert treated us to gem after gem as it took us through the season of Christmas, from Nativity to New Year. The first section focused on Byrd as it interspersed several of his In Nomines with vocal works. ‘Out of the orient crystal skies’ saw Helen Charlston, replacing a previously advertised Elin Manahan Thomas, reveal a clear voice that glistened, with its obvious strength never generating too thick a sound. The lines of the piece seemed so smooth that it felt rather more modern than it actually is, although the final utterance of ‘falantidingdido’ grounded it very much in its time. In ‘From Virgin’s womb’ of 1589, with words by Francis Kindlemarsh, the line through the word ‘Rejoice’ very much came to the fore, while ‘Lullaby’ of 1588 really showed off Charlston’s credentials as a mezzo-soprano.
The only works in the first half that were not by Byrd were two instrumental pieces by Holborne entitled The Cradle and Lullabie, both published in 1599. These delightful compositions were played extraordinarily well by Fretwork, and provided a pleasing counterbalance to his As it Fell on a Holie Eve which was played in the second half alongside Peerson’s Attendite and Gibbons’ In Nomine a5 No. 1 and Fantasy a4 ‘for great dooble basse’.
For sheer beauty the highlight may well have been Charlston’s performance of the anonymous ‘Sweet was the song’, but one of the most interesting aspects of the evening was the way in which the music saw no clear distinction between the religious and secular. Today the divide is obvious with ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ feeling fundamentally different to ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’, but in a society in which religion was so much more central it is hardly surprising that nothing was untouched by it. For example, Thomas Weelkes’ ‘To shorten winter’s sadness’ of 1598 would sound to our modern ears like a cross between a carol and a madrigal, especially since it sees references to ‘Heav’n’ alongside refrains of ‘Fa la la’. Similarly, the final piece in the main programme by Byrd was designed to herald in the New Year. Its title ‘O God that guides the cheerful sun’, however, made clear whose hand was behind the changing of the seasons, while dynamic moments rubbed shoulders with a long final ‘Amen’.
This was an evening that stole us away to a different time and place just as much as it stole our hearts with the beauty of the music and performances. Nor did our sojourn into Elizabethan England feel undermined by the encore, which transported us to Germany with a captivating performance of ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’.
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