Comparing the lists of singers for top choral ensembles is an interesting exercise. It will come as no surprise to many that there was an overlap of at least eight singers between today's line-up of The Cardinall’s Musick and a recent performance by The Sixteen, and there were a number of familiar names from The Tallis Scholars' roster too (notwithstanding the need for extras for the 40-part Spem in alium). However, Andrew Carwood elicits a highly distinctive sound from the singers in The Cardinall’s Musick, making more of the text, and often allowing for more soloistic singing than others, although this is never at the expense of overall blend.

The Cardinall's Musick © Dmitri Gutjahr
The Cardinall's Musick
© Dmitri Gutjahr

Their Chamber Prom began with Videte miraculum, and immediately, the combination of blend within voices (particularly the sopranos) and individuality of line was apparent, with some particularly smooth chant from the tenors. The occasional slightly bumpy cantus firmus entry, but overall, the scene was set for a sophisticated and stylistic approach to the repertoire.

Immediately after the opening piece for 14 voices followed two short pieces for solo quartets. In the first, O Lord, give thy Holy Spirit, the blend took a little while to settle in the dry acoustic, but here and in the quartet for lower voices, Hear the voice and prayer, the opportunity for more soloistic singing was taken by all concerned to great effect.

Archbishop Parker, in describing the tune for Why fum'th in fight? (made familiar by Vaughan Williams in his Fantasia) said that it “doth rage, and roughly brayeth”. We heard all the verses here, the first from a solo bass, and Carwood certainly infused this modal setting with some earthy grit.

Suscipe quaeso, a 7-part setting for lower voices, has incredibly rich sonorities and Tallis creates dynamic shape by layering ever thickening textures, to which Carwood added yet more intensity. A sensitive and simple performance next of O nata lux, followed by a solo quintet, for lower voices again, O sacrum convivium.  With more clever programming, there was a welcome return of high soprano voices for O salutaris hostia, one of four Tallis works in the programme receiving their first performance at the Proms.

In a brief interview, Cheryl Frances-Hoad explained her choice of text, by Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) for her new work, From the Beginning of the World, premiered here by The Cardinall’s Musick. The text is about the Great Comet of 1577, but also explores how it might be interpreted as the result of the actions of humanity. Frances-Hoad also argued its potential significance for us today, in terms of our treatment of the planet (“The sun will bring unnatural heat”), and her hint that corrupt politicians (“Those who seek their own honour as pseudo prophets”) will (hopefully) be punished. Set for eight voices, she makes incredibly striking and effective use of techniques, which allow her to extract much from this at times disturbing text. Particular words – “earthquake”, “spew”, and “punished” are given almost scary emphasis, using harsh clashes within voice parts, rapid canon and echo effects, and on the word ‘peccavi’ (I have sinned), a highly challenging solo soprano cadenza, expertly performed by Katie Trethewey. This was a challenge for all concerned, and the high level of concentration needed was palpable, but the singers pulled this off with accomplishment. I hope this impressive work secures the further performances, and hopefully recording, that it deserves.

I have heard (and been involved in performances of) Tallis’ great 40-part motet, Spem in alium performed in many ways: with the eight choirs in different parts of a venue, the singers circling the audience, and even with the audience moving about amongst the singers as they perform. They all provide a different experience of this amazing 10 minutes of music, and the venue’s acoustic also plays an important part. The Cadogan Hall's dry acoustic would never deliver a fully rich, blended sound to wash over the audience and hide all the joins between the choirs (although BBC Radio 3 listeners may have experienced an 'enhanced' acoustic). However, what it did provide was the opportunity to hear the detail, which is so often lost. The 40 singers here performed in two flat rows, with the eight choirs spread from left to right. The effect Tallis created of the sound sweeping through the choirs one by one, and then back again was apparent, but more than that, one could hear (and see) the detail of individual parts - and there is so much here that deserves to be noticed. Carwood gave a rigidly clear beat, which is vital, but also shaped the ebb and flow of the dynamics, which avoided the common danger of a performance becoming an exercise in counting. The tutti sections had immense power, and the crescendo to the final cadence was truly magnificent. 

Perfomances of the highest standard all round, and a fitting launch to the Proms Chamber series.

*****