TRANSCENDENCE TO TRANSPARENCY (Les Canards Chantants): Music review

les-canards-chantantsLes Canards Chantants (“the singing ducks”), a renaissance polyphony voice ensemble, was born in England and, although it is a very American group, had its debut in York in 2011. The American debut came much later, in 2015 in Boston. Fortunately for us, co-directors Robin and Graham Bier live in the area and decided to present the group for a Center City concert at St. Stephens Church on Friday.

The narrative was as intriguing as the singing as Professor Graham Bier has a gift for making short statements of great import, such as his brief description of the four-monarch span of Thomas Tallis’s career and how it affected his music.  Under Henry VIII, Tallis went from Catholic to non-Catholic music, under Edward VI, he composed Protestant tunes in English, then complex Catholic music for Mary Tudor, and, finally, a Calvinistic trend under Elizabeth favored ‘playnely understanded’ texts.  The Tallis compositions were selected to show us the wide range and diversity of his compositional styles and liturgical metamorphoses. The O Sacrum convivium began with Owen McIntosh, tenor and Robin Bier, contralto, exchanging lines and carefully cultivating their common range to sound like vocal twins. Ms. Bier’s contralto is quite rich, with a solid low range that is highly unusual, though Philadelphia was also home to contralto Marian Anderson.

Clara Rottsolk, soprano, Owen McIntosh, tenor, Graham Bier, bass, Robin Bier, contralto kept their voices dynamically even in well-blended harmonic phrasing for Thomas Tallis’ Third Tune, using the Introductory verse to Archbishop Matthew Parker’s Psalter to great comic effect.  The third tune is immediately recognizable since it was used by Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia.

Most moving was the Salve intemerata virgo, an early work by Tallis. It begins with a duet between tenor and bass (Owen McIntosh and Graham Bier) and later has a duet between soprano and alto. Rottsolk’s silky and pure soprano matched Ms. Bier’s surprisingly light high alto notes.  Jonathan Woody sang the second bass voice – blending almost invisibly with Graham Bier’s bass notes. The lengthy piece is intricate, weaving through several trios and also exploiting the full five-voice sound.

The vocal blending in the Tallis pieces was so smooth – much more so than in the Dutch Jacobus Clemens non Papa and the German Johan Walter sung in the first half of the concert.  The intriguing discords of the clusters in Clemens’s Psalm CXXVII from the Dutch Metrical Psalter were surprising as were the sudden extrusions of individual vocalists. Fortunately, this revealed the beautiful lower tones of Robin Bier’s contralto, especially in the Walter Ascendo ad patrem meum.  Philadelphia is lucky to have another rich contralto – a rara avis to be found among Les Canards Chantants.

[Les Canards Chantants at Saint Stephens Episcopal Church, 19 S. 10th Street] May 25, 2018.
[A the Glencairn Museum, 1001 Cathedral Rd, Bryn Athyn] May 26, 2018.

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