Some of England’s greatest choral music dates from the period of political and religious upheaval during the late 15th to early 17th centuries, when composers were having to adapt to new monarchs and changes to the church service almost as frequently as they would have changed their shirts. This created an extremely fertile atmosphere for new and experimental choral music, using the full spectrum of vocal colour and texture, from the lowest bass to the highest treble in the church choir.

Alamire with David Skinner © William Unwin
Alamire with David Skinner
© William Unwin

Tonight’s performers Alamire, conducted by David Skinner, took us on a complete tour of this compositional journey from the pinnacle of late 15th-century polyphony, the Eton Choirbook, right through to William Byrd and Thomas Tallis’ collection for Elizabeth I, the Cantiones Sacrae, published in London in 1575. Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, we were joined by presenter Petroc Trelawny, who, in short interviews with Skinner, provided enlightening introductions to the pieces, enhancing our understanding of the programme and putting the music into context.

We started in the Eton Choirbook with Walter Lambe’s Nesciens mater, a polyphonic psalm antiphon which displayed the clean, pure sound of the group wonderfully. The solo verse sections alternated with full-bodied tutti sections and the blend of the group was impeccable. The long, interweaving melodic lines were impressively sustained in this polyphonic style, and the crystal-clear soprano line was used to full effect in the second piece of the evening, John Taverner's O Christe Jesu, pastor bone.

During this period, the text was considered unimportant compared to the overall wash of beautiful sound produced. The gentle lilt of John Sheppard’s Filiae Jerusalem had some interesting harmonic colours and moments of melodic interest for each of the vocal parts, which were beautifully shaped by Skinner. Quemadmodum was probably Taverner’s final composition and the even tone colour and unified vowel shapes of Alamire created a rich, beautiful sound, and the exhilarating final chord ringing through the hall, perfectly tuned and blended.

We finished the first half with Taverner and Christopher Tye’s lengthy votive antiphon O splendour gloriae, a composition – like many of Tallis’ later works – based on plainchant. The beautifully simple opening expanding, adding layer upon layer of vocal lines until the joyful Amen section. The antiphonal use of verse and tutti texture was managed well, with a great balance between the parts and lovely links between the sections leading to a glorious final chord yet again.

The second half began with a male-voice rendition of Tallis’ famous If ye love me. Despite being one of the better-known, simpler pieces of the evening, this was a real highlight. Skinner set a faster tempo than most and there was flexibility and honesty about the singing, which brought life to the text. The change of compositional style was evident in both this and the following pieces, Tallis’ Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter, in which the text was undoubtedly at the forefront of the composer’s mind. This set of nine psalm tunes, including the one on which Vaughan Williams based his Fantasia, was Archbishop Parker’s attempt to meter the psalms, making them rhyme in weird and wonderful ways. Alamire sang the homophonic settings with grace, allowing the text to speak for itself.

With the return of Mary to the throne, Latin settings returned to the church service, but with the crucial new experience of setting vernacular text and understanding the nuances of descriptive musical writing for the text. This led Byrd and Tallis to write some of their most glorious music, using singers’ full ranges, such as the low bass in Byrd’s Peccantem me quotidie describing the depths of hell in musical form. Tallis uses the same effect in his In ieiunio et fletu, which descends into the grave and was performed by a solo quintet. This contrasted with the light and life of Dum transisset sabbatum and the shimmering homophony of Byrd’s Emendemus in melius.

The final piece of tonight’s performance was another giant composition: Byrd’s three-for-the-price-of-one motet Tribue Domine. Harking back to the votive antiphon style of the previous century, Byrd brought all of his compositional tricks to the table in this piece, which builds to one of the most triumphant endings of any work. The blend, shaping and wonderfully exciting full sound of Alamire brought radiance and light to Byrd’s expressive music. The encore, Tallis’ O nata lux, was equally celestial and brought the evening to a peaceful close.

The joy of listening to a group that was essentially formed as a research project is that you leave feeling like you have learnt something: the knowledge and insight Skinner brings to the performance coupled with the intelligence and musicality of the singers is a unique blend, creating wonderfully expressive performance in a thoughtful and respectful way.