Near ideal for chamber music and song recitals, the intimate acoustics of the Wigmore Hall might be thought to lack spaciousness enough for unaccompanied choral singing. Not even the accomplished line-up of Andrew Carwood's choir, The Cardinall's Musick, it seemed, could entirely avoid generating a fierce, dry edge to their sound at climactic moments. None the less, their latest appearance in this venue proved an inspiring experience.
This was at least partly due to the cogency of their programme. The idea was to show how Vaughan Williams revived, and carried forward in his own music, long-neglected aspects of our Tudor heritage. In the first half, the five movements his Mass in G Minor (1922) were interspersed with plainchants and two of the most famous antiphons of Cardinal Wolsey's choirmaster, John Taverner – the bright "Christe Jesu, pastor bone" and the haunting "Mater Christi sanctissima". In the second, two of Vaughan Williams' finest motets were flanked by three wonderful Latin settings from Thomas Tallis.
Maybe the juxtaposition showed up Vaughan Williams as less of a natural contrapuntist than his forebears; the little patches of polyphony in his Mass are interspersed between fairly lengthy tracts of chant-like melody or chord-by-chord word setting.
But it also served to show how sensitive he was to the complex implications of Tudor harmony.
His setting of "O vos omnes" (1922) from the Lamentations of Jeremiah almost entirely comprises a sequence of chords, but in such unexpected progressions, that the ear is transfixed. As plangently keened by the high voices of The Cardinall's Musick, joined only near the end by the low voices, this proved one of the high points of the evening – though nicely complemented by Tallis's severe setting of the "Benedictus" for low voices alone, and Vaughan Williams' own graphic Bunyan setting, "Valiant for Truth" (1940).
The other high point was the elaborate concluding Tallis item "Videte miraculum", with its resonant refrain structure: a reading exemplifying Carwood's care in balancing and inflecting counterpoint and the intensity his, on this occasion, 16 voices bring to its performance – though their encore of the Vaughan Williams folksong setting "The Springtime of the Year" also showed their command of gentle sentiment.