There’s a trend amongst programmers nowadays to provide concerts with a ‘hook’: an extra-musical incentive to pull the punters in, or at least help performers pinpoint their pieces. This is all the more prevalent among early music promoters, who suffer from an ever-present anxiety over the relevance of their repertoire – how to attract an audience to come and hear music written centuries ago in a context so wildly removed from our twenty-first-century lives? One solution is to use architecture: music written for the space in which it is heard in concert holds a certain trans-historical resonance – literally speaking. This was the premise of Vivamus’ concert ‘A Garland for the Queen’, which featured music written for its intended venue, the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy, alongside music celebrating Queens Elizabeth I and II (the link here being the latter’s Diamond Jubilee). The hook sank, though, when restoration works in the Queen’s Chapel provoked the concert’s relocation, and all those well-laid plans came to nought. The resulting performance in St George’s, Bloomsbury went to show that this didn’t matter in the slightest; that great music well performed in a wonderful venue is enough to make for a special evening, corresponding architecture or not.

Vivamus Choir
Vivamus Choir

The rich acoustics of St George’s suited Vivamus’ opening piece perfectly. Fair Nymphs, I heard one telling, a delightful madrigal by Elizabethan composer John Farmer, comes from The Triumphs of Oriana. A set of English madrigals published in 1601, this is a celebration of the ‘Virgin Queen’ and her fair realm: a mythological vision of Elizabethan Golden Age Britain as a bucolic paradise. Both Farmer’s piece and Thomas Morley’s Hard by a crystal fountain are classic English madrigals, full of lilting melisma and flowing imitative passages. Vivamus, a 27-voice auditioned amateur ensemble, performed them with a liveliness and freshness befitting such airy, pastoral and ultimately ornamental music.

Succeeding each of the Oriana madrigals were pieces written to celebrate another Elizabeth: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Silence and Music and Michael Tippett’s Dance Clarion Air. These madrigals, too, were contributions to a collection celebrating the Queen’s Coronation in 1952, A Garland for the Queen. The choir, once settled, mastered the close, shifting harmonies of Silence and Music, and the parallel octaves in the two-part contrapuntal section radiated an austere power. A recitative-like bass passage heralds a section of aimless harmonic wandering, but the ensuing twisting soprano melody was beautifully done. Tippett’s exceptionally difficult madrigal proved rather more problematic; from the declamatory opening onwards, it was all the singers could do to struggle through the notes. A sustained section towards the end was much better handled, the choir obviously more at ease here than with Tippett’s challengingly dramatic writing. Organist Richard Hills continued the concert in the British celebratory vein, performing Kenneth Leighton’s Paean. Leighton’s writing shone out with brightness and clarity on the St George instrument. Hills took the rhythmic central section slower than usual, which brought the compositional interest of the piece to the fore, but compromised the sheer jubilance of Paean.

William Cornysh’s extraordinary Magnificat was excellently introduced by conductor Rufus Frowde, who kept his introduction brief, interesting, and to the point. Cornysh was Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal from 1509 to 1523, and his Magnificat is a choral tour de force, its florid consonant richness exemplifying the incredibly unique sound of pre-Reformation English choral composition. An extremely complex piece to perform, Vivamus did exceptionally well, and St George’s luscious acoustic proved a great help. There was, quite understandably, visible and audible relief as the final Amen brought all performers together after extended exposed passages, and after the last resounding consonance had faded completely from the rafters of the church (which took a while), the choir were greeted with enthusiastic and well-deserved applause.

William Byrd’s Mass for five voices constituted the concert’s second half, and after a slightly hesitant start, the singers soon got into the music, clearly most at home with Byrd’s immensely stimulating and satisfying choral language. Vivamus lent the music the wonderful richness of tone enjoyed by larger choirs; I only found myself wishing that they would dare a little more. The contrasting sections of the Credo, for example, would have profited dramatically from greater dynamic contrast. All the same, this glorious music was beautifully sung.

The last three of Byrd’s movements were separated from the first three by another organ solo, Herbert Howells’s Master Tallis’s Testament. At first I worried that this wouldn’t work but it proved to be a stroke of inspiration: Howells’s restrained flutes provided the perfect foil to all that polyphonic abundance, and the work’s subtle ending inspired the singers to new-found levels of expression in the Sanctus. The concert ended on a high, the choir finding its most expressive voice in the the Agnus Dei, communicating the sublime intimacy of Bryd’s writing exceptionally.

***11