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Prom Chamber Music 1: The Cardinall's Musick, Carwood | reviews, news & interviews

Prom Chamber Music 1: The Cardinall's Musick, Carwood

Prom Chamber Music 1: The Cardinall's Musick, Carwood

Period specialists' superb account of Cheryl Frances-Hoad's ravishing world premiere overshadows Tallis

The Cardinall's Musick: musical high-definition

How often do the streets of London throng with concert-goers demanding admission to a recital of Latin motets? Even for Sloane Square, the crowds hoping for a last-minute ticket to the sold-out Proms Chamber Music debut concert by The Cardinall’s Musick of Tallis and Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s world premiere were exceptional. For the most part, these music-lovers displayed excellent judgement, for this was an inspired programme and performance.

Not, however, in the way most probably had in mind.

Despite his popularity, four of the Tallis pieces were receiving their Proms debut, including, surprisingly, “O salutaris hostia”, his appealingly expansive hymn to the elevated Host. The debuts were joined by some of his more popular religious pieces, notably “Why fum’th in fight?”, which is the strikingly modal Tallis theme on which Vaughan-Williams drew for his now more famous string arrangement. The forces required ranged from four and 14 singers, and in these arrangements, the ensemble was on superb form.  

Dissonant chords of breathtaking complexity squirmed and spun

Cadogan Hall, especially when full of acoustically absorbent human flesh, has a drier sound than most chapels, which prevented the vocal lines from melting together quite as deliciously as they can do. Yet, when the singing is as good as this, it gives you the opportunity to savour individual lines instead. Patrick Craig, Katie Trethewey and Steven Harrold, to select just the most outstanding, gave exceptionally precise, detailed and honest performances. Perhaps tempi could have a been a little brisker to compensate for the rather static acoustic, but the beautiful timbre of the voices and the clarity of enunciation made up for that.  

Before the choir, now 40-strong, began Spem in alium, director and conductor Andrew Carwood pointed out that the piece was probably composed for the Chapel Royal, possibly for Queen Elizabeth’s 40th birthday in 1573. In such a setting, the singers would probably have been divided at least into two groups, facing one another across the choir stalls. This division, the more reverberant acoustic, and the smaller audience would have allowed the vocal lines to blend dynamically, in a way that is essential for the musical drama of this piece to breathe.   

Cheryl Frances-HoadHowever, In Cadogan Hall the massed (relatively speaking) ranks of the choir were lined up facing the audience, and started singing mostly on the left, moving rightwards with an effect not unlike testing the balance on a set of speakers. Projecting out into the audience, the lines could not entwine as they needed to, and the crucial sense of dynamic ensemble was to some extent lost. The second half of the piece, where the organisation of parts is less predictably ordered, was more successful as a consequence, but overall, it was a dry and rather undramatic account. The (economically impossible) solution would have been to place some of the choir in the (sold-out) balcony seats to facilitate a more inclusive acoustic.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad (pictured right) made a bold, intriguing and difficult choice of text for her tribute to Tallis, From the Beginning of the World. Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe’s German Treatise on the Great Comet of 1577 is a scientifically important, but often (as a piece of writing) somewhat leaden explanation not only of that event’s physical phenomena but also its moral and philosophical significance. And Frances-Hoad weaves wonders with it.

What a sound. Where the words were sometimes dry, Frances-Hoad drenched each phrase in dramatic expression – wonderment and horror, principally – of the most ravishing intensity. Dissonant chords of breathtaking complexity squirmed and spun, while exposed vocal lines, pitched and balanced perfectly by this core of singers, weaved an astonishing tapestry of vocal and emotional colours. And amongst the delirious power of the music, little Tallis quotations glimmered teasingly. The final “Amen” was a harrowing wail, far removed from its traditional flaccid blandness. Technically, it must have been extraordinarily difficult to sing. This is not something amateur choirs will be giving up their Karl Jenkins for.

Interviewed onstage by BBC Radio Three’s Petroc Trelawney, Frances-Hoad explained her piece’s relevance to a contemporary audience that is alarmed by environmental and political conundrums as 16th-century populations were by the comet. After music of such originality, it felt a bit predictably political. Yet Tallis and his arguably greater Catholic contemporary William Byrd conjured ecstatic pieces in an environment of perilously shifting political sands. So here, too, perhaps Frances-Hoad fits the bill, able to read the political tea leaves as Tallis did before her. Though it’s mainly for her sublime premiere, and a (mostly) commanding performance by The Cardinall’s Musick, this concert has set a standard for Chamber Proms that will be extremely difficult to sustain.


Where the words were sometimes dry, Frances-Hoad drenched each phrase in dramatic expression of the most ravishing intensity


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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What a wonderful review! I was only able to hear it on the BBC rebroadcast, and yet was transported by the music and the superb singing. Bravo on the premiere! The Tallis works were particularly lovely, and I've been eagerly accumulating the recordings of all of Tallis's music as is still being released by The Cardinall's Musick (on Hyperion). Unfortunately, the BBC cut off a substantial portion of "Spem in alium"-- why?? That was a great disservice to the piece and to the performers, and a source of real frustration to those of us who want to enjoy the concert now. This concert was sold out within a couple of hours of tickets becoming available. I hope that The Cardinall's Musick will be performing for another Prom soon, and that they will be presented to their large, enthusiastic audience in a bigger venue.

p.s. How very odd. When I listened to the broadcast from my home computer just now, I heard the entire performance, plus a bit of applause at the end. However, I previously listened twice from my computer at the office, and the music cut off early, abruptly, both times. Sorry, BBC3--not your fault (perhaps) unless you made some recent changes. Very nice to hear the entire concert!

Yes, it seems to be OK now. Though still billed at 58 minutes ! It did over-run - Petroc had to nip back-stage to do his closing spiel over the applause, also now audible on the iPlayer ... An excellent start to this year's PCM season, though, whether in the Hall or at home

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