The Tudor Choir gave an outstanding concert of sacred music from Tudor England and the Sistine Chapel on Saturday evening at St. Mary’s Cathedral. For this concert, the Tudor Choir, under the direction of Doug Fullington, consisted of eleven singers although some of the pieces required fewer. The Seattle-based ensemble, presented by Portland’s Cappella Romana, made excellent use of the cathedral’s opulent acoustics and held the audience spellbound with their vocal artistry.
Most impressive was the extremely well-matched quality of the voices in this ensemble. The transition of tone from singer to singer was absolutely seamless. For example, among the sopranos, it was impossible to tell which one was singing unless you actually looked at them. With so few singers, it is usually easy to distinguish one voice from another, because each voice typically has enough unique character to help reveal who is singing what. Yet The Tudor Choir easily made eight voices sound like four whenever two voices were on a part, and that gave their sound an ethereal quality.
Superb also was the purity of the vocal line. Whether separate or together, the ensemble delivered a smooth, pure, and rounded tone with no vibrato. The tone never sounded harsh or sterile, and the overall effect was entrancing. All of the pieces were sung a capella, and there were no pitch problems at all – a remarkable feat when you consider the difficulty of this music.
The first half of the program consisted of music from Tudor England. The first piece was Loquebantur variis linguis (Speaking in different tongues) by Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585), which is a vespers response to the theme of Pentecost. The music imitates the babble of voices with lots of tricky entrances and clashing harmonics. The Tudor Choir handled this number easily and displayed a near-perfect blend between all of the parts.
The high quality of blend and purity of vocal line was exhibited by the ensemble also in Quemadmodum desiderat cervus (As the deer longs for) by John Taverner (c. 1490-1545), Super flumina Babylonis (By the waters of Babylon) by Philippe de Monte (1521-1603), and in three pieces by William Byrd (1539/40-1623): Miserere mei (Have mercy on me), Quomodo cantabimus conticum Domini (How will we sing the Lord’s song), and Laudibus in sanctis (In holy praises). Here and there the sopranos were too dominant, but their tone was so gorgeous that it didn’t matter.
The second half of the concert began with Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus, one of the most difficult pieces in the choral repertory because of the repeated high C for the soprano in the quartet. Since this piece was written for two ensembles, the Tudor Choir split in half with five voices in front of the audience and four at our backs.
The soprano did very well with the high Cs, which she hit spot on the first three times. She did a big scoop to get the fourth high C, and she climbed three steps to get the last one. These last two variations were apparently done differently as additional ornamentation. They struck me as a bit odd, but the overall effect of the music was tremendously gratifying and the audience responded with sustained applause.
The final pieces on the program were five works by Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) whose work is seen by musicologists as a summation of Renaissance polyphony. The ensemble sang Palestrina’s Tue es Petrus (You are Peter), Sicut cervus desiderat (As the deer longs for), Alma redemptoris mater (Gracious Mother of the Redeemer), his Magnificatfor double choir, and his Nunc Dimittis for double choir. The Tudor Choir performed each of these pieces with grace and clarity. The blend seemed to get better, because the sopranos backed off a little bit and the middle voices came out a little more.
After an extended round of applause, in which it was clear that no one in the audience wanted to leave, The Tudor Choir exquisitely performed Libera Nos, Salva Nos by John Shepherd (1512-1563). Another long round of applause followed, but the listeners were faced with the fact that this splendid concert was finally over. Let’s hope that Tudor Choir makes another visit to Portland in the near future.