Friday, March 11, 2005

Master Tallis' Testament


Authentic performance is conventionally defined as played on original instruments and in an original style (without vibrato etc), but performances in 'authentic' surroundings can add an equally valid frisson.

Norwich Priory became a Benedictine Monastic Priory five years after its foundation in 1096, and the Norman groundplan is the most authentic of any English cathedral. Among many glories the cloisters, which unusually for a dissolved house remain intact, are outstanding. They were burnt down in 1272, and subsequently rebuilt with an unusual covered upper story for the monks to use for work and contemplation in winter. (It is a common mistake to think cloisters were simply used by monks walking in silent, contemplative circles. Together with the Chapter House and church they were a central point for the monks, used for working, reading and writing. When I arrived to stay in the Benedictine L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux I didn't know the etiquette of monastic life, and had to ask what could be done, and what was forbidden in the cloisters. I was surprised to find that the cloister was a working, as well as contemplative area).


The Cloisters, Norwich Cathedral Priory

Norwich Cathedral Priory is almost within a stone's throw of a Dominican Friary which is acknowledged as the finest remains of any medieval friary church in England. The Dominican Friary was retained after the suppression as St. Andrew's Hall, a venue for public events, and is now the principal concert venue in Norwich. Alas, and quite inexplicably for a large ecclesiastical building, the acoustics of the architecturally magnificent St. Andrew's Hall are abysmal. The Cathedral Priory, which is now the Episcopal Cathedral, is also a concert venue with along and chequered history including the first performance of Elgar's Sea Pictures conducted by the composer in 1899. Thankfully, it is in the flattering acoustic and magnificent setting of the Cathedral that the Keswick Hall Choir have chosen to present an innovative programme entitled Mater Tallis' Testament (taking its name from Herbert Howells' organ work of the same name which was included in the concert).

Master Thomas Tallis was represented by his Lamentations of Jeremiah and two motets, Suscipe quaeso and Loquebantur varris linguis. (The latter using a Saron plainchant as a Cantus Firmus , with a wonderful unadorned presentation of the chant at the end). Framing Tallis's masterpieces were works by Britten, Howells, Vaughan Williams (his Mass in G Minor, itse;f a homage to Tudor polyphony), Walton's The Twelve (which is closer to Belshazzar's Feast than polyphony), and a very effective contemporary cantata Haes Dies by Peter Ashton who was in the audience.

Tallis, Vaughan Williams, Britten et al soared to the wonderfully embellished Norman roof. The Keswick Hall Choir conducted by John Aplin were in their usual impeccable form (although at forty-four strong, some would argue, a little full bodied for the Tallis), and in the 20th century works the contribution from the from David Dunnett at the console of the modern organ (which is the second largest cathedral organ in Britain) perched on the pulpitum screen was magnificent.


Keswick Hall Choir in rehearsal in Norwich Cathedral

And the silent contribution of the Benedictine Priory was wonderful. We walked in the darkened cloisters during the interval as snow flurries swirled outside, and I was reminded of my stay at the Benedictine L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux , and the monks in their black habits walking into the darkened abbey church at three o'clock in the morning for matins. As Peter Levi wrote in the Frontiers of Paradise - "English monastic ruins are almost more impressive than a living monastery; they are doubly dramatic. They pose formidable questions about God and the soul, to which the light and shadows of their ruined architecture offer the merest hint of answers."


Programme for Master Tallis' Testament, Norwich Cathedral Priory, 26th February 2005

Benjamin Britten (1913-76) - A Hymn to the Virgin

Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) - The Lamentations of Jeremiah

Benjamin Britten - Voluntary on Tallis' Lamentation

Peter Aston (b.1938) - Haes Dies

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Mass in G Minor

Herbert Howells (1892-1993) - Master Tallis' Testament

Thomas Tallis - Suscipe quaeso and Loquebantur variis linguis

William Walton (1902-83) - The Twelve


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