For their contribution to the St John’s Christmas Festival, the a-cappella ensemble The Cardinall’s Musick presented ‘Vigilia di Natale’, a programme featuring sacred music of the Italian Renaissance by composers not only native to the Italian peninsula but also those who gravitated to work there such as the Spanish-born Tomás Luis de Victoria or the Burgundian Josquin Desprez.
There is a clean, bright edge to the sound of The Cardinall’s Musick that comes through not only in their recordings, but in their live performance. For some, this might sound a little clinical, but it guaranteed that every line of the polyphonic material shone through, with their excellence of blend ensuring that no voice dominated. Notwithstanding all this, though, the singers throughout the concert were somewhat buried in their scores, and although the delivery was of recording standard, the resulting lack of audience communication made one wonder what the advantage was of attending a live concert.
The first half of the evening was woven around the movements of Victoria’s Mass-setting O magnum mysterium, based on his eponymous motet that takes its text from the responsorial chant for Matins of Christmas Day. Appropriate though it was for the season, it is, sadly, one of Victoria’s more workaday Masses; set in four parts (apart from the five-part canon forming the ‘Agnus Dei’), it takes a brisk, no-nonsense approach to the delivery of the liturgy, offering the concert-listener little of Victoria’s more intricate expositions in which to luxuriate (almost in acknowledgement of this, the ensemble omitted the double repetition of the ‘Agnus Dei’ musical statement). Nonetheless, the Mass was given a first-class rendition, the group’s director Andrew Carwood ensuring that speed and dynamic pointed up the material to best effect (the use of a four voice semi-chorus for the ‘et incarnatus’ section of the creed was particularly effective).
Interest in the first half, though, was augmented not only by settings of the Marian hymn Alma Redemptoris Mater by Orlandus Lassus and Victoria (both full of lush eight-part texture), but by a couple of three-part works written by the 14-year-old Claudio Monteverdi. Angelus ad pastores ait – for two intertwining sopranos and a solid bassus line – was the simpler of the two, while Hodie Christus natus est for three lower voices required much more imitative material from the lower part, and provided a foretaste of Monteverdi’s consummate art in the years to come.
In the second half, The Cardinall’s Musick were able to demonstrate much more what makes them such a well chosen group of singers, as the works performed involved several different combinations of singers, each one showing a precision of blend and timbre – whether it involved three voices or six – that replicated the sound of the whole eight voice group in microcosm. The settings of Hodie Christus natus est by Palestrina and Giovanni Gabrieli, allowed for some glorious double-choir conversations in the Venetian style (unusual for the stolidly Roman Palestrina), and Josquin’s Praeter rerum seriem gave us a two-choir work of a very different style, the tenor/two basses blend of one of the choirs making for some agreeable dark-brown textures that were set off by the alternating high and low voices carrying the cantus firmus.
Palestrina’s Rex Melchior with its alternating busy polyphony and firm homophony was an enjoyable discovery, as was the enchantingly light and elegantly balanced O regem caeli, Victoria’s angelic chorus set for four high voices. For an encore piece, the ensemble opted for Palestrina’s setting of Alma Redemptoris, whose warm, largely homophonic statements, delivered with perfect understanding of the idiom, made for a tender buona notte.