Mention John Tavener today, and most people think of the contemporary composer
with only one 'R' to his name. His near namesake, John Taverner with two 'Rs',
who lived and composed for the Church of England 500 years ago, was as innovative
in his day as John Tavener is now.
Taverner is regarded now as a link between mediaeval and Renaissance music in England in the way that his contemporary Robert Carver is in Scotland. The Theatre of Voices and Ars Nova Copenhagen, directed as a single choir by Paul Hillier (pictured), fully demonstrated this quality
in his music in last night's stunning Harmony and Humanity concert in Greyfriars'
Kirk. He was probably the first composer to use the song Western Wind
as the basis for a Mass, and in this he was followed by Christopher Tye (ca
1505-1573) and John Shepherd (ca 1515-1558).
The programme centred on Taverner's Western Wind Mass, interspersing
the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei with other pieces. The Kyrie 'Le
Roy', also by Taverner, opened the programme instead of the plainchant Introit
that was customary in the early C16. Having heard the flowing lines of William
Byrd's Mass for Four Voices in the previous Harmony and Humanity concert,
it quickly became apparent who had been Byrd's model.
The 16-voice choir sang with a mellow clarity and unanimity that was a real
joy to hear, the parts interweaving with each other in a seamless whole. There
was musical image-painting as well: 'Qui sedes at dexteram Patris' in the Credo
achieved a feeling of majesty that the C16 congregation could have seen in the
carved tympanum over the church door or painted over the chancel arch. Harmonies
were often inventive, so much so that Thomas Tallis' Salvator Mundi sounded
conservative by comparison; but as a prayer it was very familiar and very personal.
The three songs for solo voices, Gabriel fram Heven King (countertenor,
tenor and bass), Edi Beo Thu (soprano and countertenor) and Stond
Wel Moder (soprano and bass) were all dedicated to the Virgin Mary, as was
much mediaeval music, and provided a perfect contrast in sound and focus from
the words of the Mass. The programme concluded with the delightful choral song
In Pace by Christopher Tye which aptly rounded the little life of the
final concert in the series with a sleep. Or so we thought: the company gave
a surprise encore with Robert Parsons' motet Ave Maria, which was warmly
This was a fitting climax to a superb and interesting series.
Concert date: 24 August 2007
© Bruce Haughan. 25 August 2007. First published on www.edinburghguide.com
Theatre of Voices