In July 1554, when Queen Mary of England took Philip Hapsburg of Spain as her husband, Catholics in her realm and beyond rejoiced. At last, they thought, a couple loyal to Rome and their heirs would stem the Protestant tide brought on by her late father, the capricious, often-married Henry VIII. In London and vicinity, music rang forth celebrating the nuptial, marking the absolution of a wayward kingdom by the Pope and, again soon afterward, in anticipation of the queen's pregnancy.
What was performed wasn't just the English variety of chants and hymns, but also the more daring and texturally richer music of the continent that arrived with Philip's retinue.
A sampler of what might have been sung in the court and churches during and shortly after Mary's reign was presented Friday night in Rockefeller Chapel by The Clerks' Group, a London-based vocal octet formed by Edward Wickham in 1992. Though the pretext of music inspired by the hope of a Catholic renewal was rather thin, it did play up to the Clerks' strength, their mastery of Renaissance Franco-Flemish sacred music.
Their program, juxtaposing unaccompanied choral works of mid-16th Century English church musicians (Thomas Tallis, Robert Parsons) and those of Flemish practitioners of polyphony attached to the Spanish courts (Pierre de Manchicourt, Nicholas Gombert), had a focus as well as variety. It also offered moments of levity in the reading of observations from that period; those of a Spaniard amusingly pointing out the English's plainness and boorish behavior.
Wickham wisely underscored the myriad connections while skirting monotony. Take the Mass based on the chant "Puer natus est nobis" by Tallis, the skillful composer of the Chapel Royal who managed to write for both Catholic and Anglican Churches. Wickham speculates that it must have been tailored to the choir of the Spanish Capilla Flamenca that traveled without boy trebles because it doesn't call for treble voices. Not only that, it also relies on an archaic mathematical scheme that stretches the unostentatious music into a lugubrious extreme when all its sections are sung back-to-back.
Wickham broke the mass up, placing the Gloria after the chant "Deus creator" in the concert's first half and inserting Gombert's Salve Regina between the Sanctus and Agnus Dei in the second half. Gombert's dark-hued, symbol-laden round of counterpoint passages offered dramatic relief against Tallis' soft, ethereal haze.
Through it all, Wickham and the other Clerks showed a seamless teamwork that beautifully blended their pure, radiant, supple voices. Not a weak link among them.
Towards the end, however, the Clerks began to drop pitch and sound a bit tired. By then, they had already demonstrated they could breathe life into period pieces with artfulness and conviction.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times