Reviewed from live BBC Radio 3 broadcast… Andrew Carwood constructed a timely and intriguing programme with Gunpowder Plot resonances for his vocal ensemble The Cardinall's Musick, who celebrates its thirtieth birthday this year. There was music of high drama, religious intensity, levity and wit, which gave sharp insight into the political tensions of the early seventeenth century. Carwood provided an illuminating commentary for the audience which combined scholarship, anecdote and gruesome detail which lay behind his choice of glorious late-Tudor and early-Stewart motets, anthems and madrigals.
Gibbon’s magnificent eight-part setting of Psalm 47 'O clap your hands' set a celebratory tone: accomplished, sunny and bright in every voice part. James I had an effective propaganda machine in his church musicians and the first three numbers emphasised his right to the throne. Thomas Tomkins’s layered motet 'O God, the proud are risen against me' referenced his enemies in dark toned chromatics, before opening out into a positive affirmation of the King’s goodness and truth. The narrative is already becoming more complex and the next pieces by Hilton, Byrd and East hinted at autocratic behaviour on James’s part. 'As there be three blue beans', a round for male voices, lightened the mood considerably, poking fun at James’s omniscience in mock seriousness: there are three universities ‘Oxford, Cambridge and James’. 'O metaphysical tobacco' trumpeted the glories of the weed, famously despised by James, in madrigalian style.
The profound centre of the programme was Byrd’s 'Deus venerunt gentes' – O God, the heathen are come. Careering back twenty years to the 1580s the landscape is one of blood and Catholic martyrdom. Byrd’s coruscating message is housed in a motet of grace and dignity, which was performed with consummate musicianship by the group of singers. Perfect phrasing, imitation and verbal repetition described the scene of carnage, sublimated by Byrd’s polyphonic memorial, most likely to Edmund Campion, who was executed by Elizabeth I.
Richard Allison’s 'O Lord bow down' was written in thanksgiving for the survival of the King after the Gunpowder Plot, and works by Tomkins and Weelkes with a similar adulatory message followed before the final monumental motet: Byrd’s 'Ad Dominum cum tribularer' – when I was in distress I called on the Lord. This heartfelt plea for truth in the face of lies and deceitfulness was emotionally devastating. The musical and dramatic contrasts, as eight parts wove miraculously distinct and as one, were breathtaking. We can only hope that the Cardinall’s Musick continue to examine and reanimate this repertoire for another thirty years.