We tend not to picture Henry VIII as tall, slim, and madly in love – but in the early days of his reign, exactly 500 years ago, that's how he was and that's how the vocal consort Alamire chose to remember him in this timely celebration: A King's Christmas. But history has a way of wrong-footing us and when you hear one of Henry's own compositions – Though Some Saith – achieving such sweet consonance on the line "I love true where I did marry", the knot in your stomach tells you that many a cruel irony resides with the benefit of hindsight. We smile in spite of ourselves.
And David Skinner – Alamire's music director and Fellow at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge – ensures that we do. He is a charming master of ceremonies deftly mixing in the jokes with the history lesson. Carols, like puppies, are not just for Christmas, he says, leading us neatly into the familiar Coventry Carol in an arrangement for three voices and harp where for once the underlying horror of the slaughter of the innocents is made explicit in the alto induced harmonic crunch at the pay-off of each verse. So, scholarly and fun with Andrew Lawrence-King – he of many harps – reminding us of Henry’s prowess on a variety of instruments, not least the gothic harp, with a rendition of Greensleeves heavily disguised as a galliard and other such fancy footwork, his fantasia concluding with a cheeky chorus of "We wish you a merry Christmas" delivered, of course, with nary a crack of a seasonal smile.
But the real meat of the evening was the music written by or for King Henry and since he was a big eater the scrumptious harmonies served up by this most luminous of consorts was not just fitting but expected. The splendour of his reign was duly encapsulated in Robert Fayrfax' Lauda vivi alpha et oo where the 11-strong vocal line-up split so dramatically into moments of stark two-voice counterpoint - boldly suggestive of doctrinal conflict prior to Henry's Reformation – only to swell into sumptuous polyphony. Then there was Sampson's Quam pulchra es which is about as ardent and as sensual as a motet gets, rejoicing in Henry's love for Catherine of Aragon as surely as in Alamire's fabulous blend of eminently traceable individual lines.
It was a cold night - but the mulled harmonies of In Dulci Jubilo ensured a warmer journey home. Heaven.
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