Chapelle du Roi, St John’s Smith Square

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The Independent Culture

The British a cappella ensemble Chapelle du Roi was set up by singer-conductor Alistair Dixon with two objectives: to bring Renaissance music to a wider audience, and also, as their brochure puts it, ‘to unearth music that has languished unseen and unheard’.

It was with this laudable aim in mind that Dixon attempted to scramble into his attic last week, in pursuit of a score for their St John’s Smith Square recital. But his ladder went flying, and he ended up with a multiple leg-fracture: he therefore had to attend his concert in plaster, while his colleague Stephen Rice did the conducting.

The programme, entitled ‘The Absolution of England’, focused on a fascinating moment in musical history. The first sin which England needed to absolve was Henry VIII’s rejection of Papal authority, and his vengeful treatment of those of his subjects who refused to follow his lead: ‘man for all seasons’ Thomas More was executed for refusing to swear allegiance. Twenty years later, Mary Tudor took England back into the Papal fold, but when Elizabeth I initiated her own Catholic suppression, a second excommunication took place. The first half of Chapelle’s programme reflected Henry’s sin, with the second half reflecting his daughter’s persecution of her Catholics.

After a graceful plainchant introduction, the Chapelle launched into Thomas Tallis’s Mass ‘Puer natus est nobis’ – the new-born boy being both Jesus and the hoped-for son from Mary’s pregnancy. With three sopranos and two singers for each of the other three voices, the Chapelle created a wonderfully muscular sound, vibrato-free but still luxurious thanks to the richness of the polyphony; the ‘Gloria’ was glorious indeed, and in this church’s lovely acoustic the lines of the ‘Sanctus’ soared to the heavens. Tallis observed strict equality among the voices, leading to an exquisite balance as the work unfolded; the texture was immaculately smooth, yet full of harmonic surprises.

New to me, the Flemish composer Philippe de Monte proved a great discovery: his setting of ‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept’ was certainly the equal of William Byrd’s setting of that psalm, which followed. The latter work rang with the anguished intensity you’d expect from a composer whose Catholic allegiance meant he lived in constant danger.