Friday, 26 April 2013

Queen of Heaven

Queen of Heaven - The Sixteen, Harry Christophers, CORO16108
The Sixteen's Choral Pilgrimage this year is entitled Queen of Heaven (see my review) and the programme is centred on movements from Palestrina's Missa Regina Coeli, with Allegri's Miserere and James MacMillan's setting of the same text, which was premiered by The Sixteen, conductor Harry Christophers, in 2009. This CD boxed contains all the music from the tour, with extra, giving the listener the opportunity to explore further. The set includes the group's latest recording, Volume 3 of their Palestrina edition including the complete Missa Regina Coeli, plus their 2011 disc of James MacMillan's music which includes the Miserere,  some of his Strathclyde Motets and Tenebrae Responses, and their disc of Allegri's Miserere with Palestrina's Missa Pape Marcelli which was originally issued on the Collins Classics label and re-issued on Coro in 2003. The set is a wonderful way to re-visit music heard on the tour, but also to discover new delights.


The disc containing the Allegri Miserere disc was originally recorded back in 1989 with an ensemble which included Nigel Short, Mark Padmore and Christopher Purves. The striking thing is how consistent the group's approach and sound has been over all these years. The disc opens with Lotti's eight-part Crucifixus, the best known of a number of settings of the same text by the composer. The opening is finely sung, and quite dark, relishing the chromaticism. Christophers speeds are quite swift, but there is still time to enjoy things.

Palestrina's Stabat Mater is given a nice clean, well shaped performance with a lovely clarity of line and fluid dialogue between the two choirs with a nice pointing of the rhythms. There are moments of ethereal beauty and moments of drama, though perhaps the performance is not quite as intense as their 2013 account of the work.

The version of Allegri's Miserere recorded here differs from that used on the 2013 concert tour. In 1989 they simply recorded the 20th century version (with top C) which has become traditional, whereas in 2013 they are performing a blended version which incorporates more recent scholarship. Here we have the traditional (but not authentic) top C, sung in gloriously clear fashion by Ruth Dean. Of course there is far more to the piece than a series of top C's and the chant and the psalm verses are nicely expressive.

The origins of Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli are unclear and surrounded by legend. The work was published in 1567, but it may date from 1555 (in celebration of the election of Pope Marcellus). The piece is a clear demonstration of Palestrina's skill at creating glorious, translucent polyphony which still enables the listener to follow the text. Performing the six-part mass (rising to seven parts in the second Agnus Dei) with a choir of 18 singers means that Christophers gets quite rich sound from the group, but the singers' clarity of line and fleetness means that we get a nicely flexibly performance. They are very responsive to the text, the Gloria and Credo are particularly notable for their sense of drama. The Sanctus opens on an airy cloud of sound, with the drama building through the movement leading to a wonderfully hushed Benedictus. The two Agnus Dei movements are glorious, with the singers responding to the music with clarity, shape and a fine expressiveness.

James MacMillan's Miserere sets the same text (Psalm 51) as the Allegri. It is dedicated to Harry Christophers and was commissioned by the Flanders Festival and premiered by The Sixteen in Antwerp in 2009. MacMillan writes for the choir in eight parts, and opens the work with the four lower parts singing a very satisfying harmonisation of a chant-like figure. It is unmistakeably MacMillan and very lovely. The sopranos respond with chant sung by overlapping voices, gradually increasing in intensity. The whole work weaves these elements into a complex whole. Structurally MacMillan seems to be echoing the early Tudor polyphonic works with their long sections for different groups of smaller voices. But the sound world is purely MacMillan's own, particularly the way he uses chant to his own distinctive ends. It is very evocative the way the voices and chant weave into each other, always responding to the text.

Next come four of MacMillan's Strathclyde Motets.   Data est mihi omnis potestas  is a communion motet for Ascension Day written in 2007. It is a lively dramatic piece with a quieter middle section, and is notable for the repeated Alleluias throughout the piece and driving the work to an ecstatic conclusion. The vocal line is enriched with the ornaments (twiddles) which MacMillan seems to derive from Gaelic singing which serve to enhance the expressivity of the music.  Dominus dabit benignitatem is a communion motet for the first Sunday in Advent, written in 2006 and dedicated to St. Columba's Church. A quietly intense piece, with a long, flexible solo line in the sopranos, it proves to be rather haunting and the high soprano part magically evaporates into silence at the end. Factus est repente is one of the earliest Strathclyde Motets dating from 2005. It uses a Pentecost text from Acts of the Apostles, which MacMillan sets in a lively fashion enriched with the wonderfully evocative twiddles. The work concludes with ecstatic Alleluias. O Radiant Dawn is one of the two 2007 Strathclyde Motets set in English. MacMillan wrote it for his own choir at St. Columba's Church. The text comes from the Advent O antiphon, O Oriens. It receives a fine full toned performance from The Sixteen.

MacMillan's eight-part motet O Bone Jesu was commissioned by The Sixteen and premiered by them in 2002. The work sets the same text as the 19-part motet by the Scottish Renaissance composer. MacMillan's work opens with a series of solo voices, the whole choir joining in just for the word Jesu (a construction which echoes the Carver where the full 19 parts are reserved for such key moments).  The work continues like this with flamboyant passages sung by smaller groups punctuated by moments sung by the whole choir. The flamboyance and ornamentation of the solo vocal lines bringing on a sort of rapture. Strongly passionate passages are contrasted with quiet reflective ones, and the result woven  into a complex and satisfying work. (The recording of O Bone Jesu dates from 2002 whereas the remainder of the MacMillan pieces were recorded in 2011).

Four further Strathclyde motets follow. Videns Dominus, a Lenten motet dating from 2005, which described the raising of Lazarus, is one of MacMillan's most striking motets. It opens with evocatively ornamented plainchant, and develops with the repeated calls of Lazare, gradually increasing in intensity. Lux Aeterna, dating from 2008, sets the text from the Requiem Mass. It is a slow moving work which uses unadorned plainsong in the alto line, and has a hauntingly intense beauty, concluding with a lovely series of repeated Amens. In splendoribus sanctorum uses a solo trumpet to add flamboyant flourishes to the setting of the motet for the Eve of the Nativity. It was premiered in 2006 by St Columba's Church choir. It starts with the choir singing in quiet, hushed tones with the solo trumpet interrupting with brilliant solos. The choir's slow chant gradually becomes more intense and the trumpet more elaborate. A substantial and fascinating work, showing MacMillan making superb use of his available resources. Benedicimus Deum caeli is one of the most recent motets on the disc, dating from 2010 is more clear and direct.

MacMillan's Tenebrae Responsories were commissioned by the Scottish group Cappella Nova and first performed by them in 2007. The style and range of the three pieces is considerably more complex than the Strathclyde Motets.

Tenebrae factae sunt starts with low dark voices, with the word Crucifixissent spat out. The timbres stay the same, but the pitch gradually rises and the intensity increases. It is difficult and emotional piece, in which MacMillan welds disparate elements into an uneasy and troubling whole. Tradiderunt me opens with repeated dramatic cries, contrasted with quiet murmuring. When the full choir comes in, MacMillan initially keeps the disjointed feel. There are comforting, chant-based moments, but never for long as strange and troubling elements constantly reoccur. Jesum tradidit impius opens with more cries, this time a repeated Jesum again contrasting with quieter moments to produces a troubling work. The ending concludes magically with just a high soprano disappearing into the distance.

These three are complex and intentionally difficult pieces, dramatising the potent events of the passion story. Composers have always responded to the Tenebrae Responses with profoundly stirring and moving music and MacMillan is no different. Chrisophers and The Sixteen give confident and finely judged performances, balancing great technical skill with great expressivity and feeling for MacMillan's music.

The most recent disc in the set is Volume 3 from The Sixteen's Palestrina edition. The disc opens with another version of the Stabat Mater. This more recent account has the same virtues as the earlier. Speeds are somewhat swifter, and there seems to be a new intensity to the group's response to the drama of the text.  The hymn Ad caenam agni providi was used on Sundays during the Easter period.  It alternates chant with polyphony, a first for four voices with a fifth added to the final polyphonic verse.  The chant is given some distance with the finely shaped polyphony recorded closer.

Palestrina's settings of the Song of Songs, some 29 in all, were not intended for liturgical use. But they are not madrigals, being Latin motets intended for devotional use. Vineam meam no custodivi is given a nice richness of texture and a vibrant performance combined with clarity of  line. Si ignoras te, O pulchra starts with a beautifully light texture and develops greater vibrancy. Listening to these settings, you detect a new warmth and colour coming into Palestrina's writing as he responds to the powerful texts. Pulchare sung geneae tuae shows the women displaying lovely high, clear tones whilst shaping the music beautifully. These are performance which are full of great poise. This motet ends on a beautiful dying fall.

Palestrina's eight part setting of Rorate Coeli is one of three settings of the text that Palestrina made, paraphrasing the well-known chant. It is written for two four-part choirs, with Palestrina keeping the two separate until the end of the piece. Here, Christophers and his singers respond with a performance of lightness and vitality.

The three offertories all come from the collection of 68 published in 1593. Improperium exspectavit cor meum for Palm Sunday starts gently and grows in intensity, it is written for five voices but with two sopranos rather then the usual two tenors. Confitebor tibi Domine is for Passion Sunday and is livelier yet restrained, with rhythmic insistence on the repeated Vicifica me. Terra tremuit for Resurrection Sunday is light and lively.

Missa Regina Coeli is written for five voices (SATTB) and was published in 1600. The work includes copious melodic references to the Regina Coeli chant. The Kyrie is beautifully stately, both the Gloria and Credo are highly responsive to the text. The performance has a beautiful surface finish to it, but there is a great deal happening underneath. The lovely Sanctus resolves into a rather suave Benedictus punctuated by a rather pointed Hosanna. The first Agnus Dei opens with a superb sense of line. Then Palestrina adds an extra voice for the second Agnus Dei, creating a profoundly beautiful and magical work.

The three discs are all available separately. Each CD comes with full texts and translations as well as extensive notes about the works.

For anyone who hears The Sixteen on their Choral Pilgrimage this year, this disc represents a fine way to re-connect with the music and to discover deeper elements. For anyone else, there is tempting prospect of extremely fine performances and emotional range in both Palestrina and MacMillan.

The Queen of  Heaven
Antonio Lotti (1667 - 1740) - Crucifixus [3.16]
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 - 1594) - Stabat Mater [9.19]
Gregorio Allegri (1582 - 1652) - Miserere Mei [12.08]
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 - 1594) - Missa Papae Marcelli [31.13]

James MacMillan (born 1959) - Misererei [12.34]
James MacMillan (born 1959) - Data est mihi omnis potestas [3.48]
James MacMillan (born 1959) - Dominus dabvit benignitatem [4.33]
James MacMillan (born 1959) - Factus est repente [2.37]
James MacMillan (born 1959) - O Radiant Dawn [3.22]
James MacMillan (born 1959) - O Bone Jesu [10.15]
James MacMillan (born 1959) - Videns Dominus [5.08]
James MacMillan (born 1959) - Lux aeterna [3.47]
James MacMillan (born 1959) - In splendoribus sanctorum [11.09]
James MacMillan (born 1959) - Benedicimus Deum caeli [2.28]
James MacMillan (born 1959) - Tenebrae Responsories [19.49]

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 - 1594) - Stabat Mater a8 [8.30]
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 - 1594) - Ad caenam agni providi [7.39]
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 - 1594) - Vineam meam noncustodivi [3.12]
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 - 1594) - Si ignoras te, O pulchra [3.44]
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 - 1594) - Puchrae sunt genae tuae [3.47]
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 - 1594) - Improperium expectavit cor meum [3.47]
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 - 1594) - Confitebor tibi Domine [2.15]
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 - 1594) - Terra tremuit [2.13]
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 - 1594) - Missa Regina Coeli [31.21]

The Sixteen
Harry Christophers (conductor)

Recorded 1989, St Jude's Church, London
2002, St Michael's Church, Highgate, London
2011, St Giles Crippleagate, London
2013, St. Alban the Martyr, Holborn, London

CORO CORO16108 (CORO16014, CORO16096, CORO16106) 3CD's [56.26, 56.26, 70.30]

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