Sunday, 7 April 2013

The Sixteen - Choral Pilgrimage 2013

The Sixteen
The Sixteen's annual Choral Pilgrimage has become something a fixture in the UK's classical music calendar, a programme of some of the greatest renaissance polyphony performed in some of the greatest renaissance buildings. It is a substantial enterprise, 16,000 people saw them last year and this year they perform at 36 venues over the year from Edinburgh, Perth and Carlisle to Lllandaff, Exeter and Truro. We caught up with them in St. Alban's Cathedral on Saturday 6 April 2013 (their third concert, the pilgrimage having started on 2 March in Guildford). The cathedral was full, in fact extra seating had been made available the day before. It is heartening that a group like the Sixteen can fill a church (900 people or more in the nave alone) with a programme of polyphony by Palestrina, Allegri and James MacMillan. The programme was titled The Queen of Heaven and themed around music to the Virgin Mary including Palestrina's Missa Regina caeli and his Stabat Mater, along with Allegri's Miserere and James MacMillan's setting of the same text.


We arrived to find a pre-concert talk going on and the nave already pretty full. Harry Christophers and Rob Macdonald (one of the basses in the choir), were engaged in an entertaining and illuminating dialogue which covered not only the music, but their background in choral singing (both have been boy trebles), the style of the group itself and how different groups, though using a pool of the same singers, have different styles depending on the musical director.

St Alban's Cathedral
The concert opened with the plainchant Regina caeli laetare, sung in dialogue with the tenors and basses at the back of  the cathedral gradually processing forward, very effective. Then leading without a break into the Kyrie from Palestrina's Missa regina caeli. Christophers used 18 singers throughout (the Pilgrimage concerts use a pool of 37 from whom 18 are chosen), thus giving a lovely rich sound to the five-part Palestrina mass. The group sang with a nicely focussed tone and sense of line, but though clearly an English ensemble, they brought a vibrancy and vitality to the music. Christopers' speeds were quite stately, but there again singing this music in a large space like St. Alban's Cathedral necessitates an accommodation with the acoustic, and the results were beautifully shaped.

One of the beauties of the Sixteen's Choral Pilgrimage is that they perform Renaissance polyphony in the sort of buildings for which it was written, these Romanesque and Gothic spaces respond well to the style of music. Granted, we were sitting in the fifth row, so I have to admit that I have no idea what it sounded like from row LL at the back of the nave.

James MacMillan's communion motet Dominus dabit benignitatem for the First Sunday in Advent came next. MacMillan (born 1959) is one of the few contemporary composers who combines a feeling of modernism in his music with a strong personal faith. He is also an active performer of his own church music, in a liturgical context, which has a powerful effect on the way his motets are constructed. Many use relatively simple means to achieve extremely striking, and very moving effects. Dominus dabit benignitatem alternated dark, close harmony in the lower voices, with a pair of melodies in the altos and in the sopranos, each different in character and the three elements repeated hypnotically and combining to a rapturous climax which then evaporated. The sopranos contributed admirably with a fabulously passionate but focussed melodic line.

Next came one of the most famous pieces of Renaissance sacred music, Allegri's Miserere. Except that no manuscript by Allegri survives (the earliest we have is 23 years after his death), the Sistine Chapel performances relied for their affect on the abellimenti added by the singers and that the version commonly performed today uses a mistake in transcription. This means that the powerful and very effective section which includes the famous top C, is an entirely 20th century creation based on a mistake. But the result, despite its anachronism, is glorious and audiences, when they see the Allegri Miserere on a programme, expect it.

Christophers and the Sixteen solved the problem by using a compilation version, based on the work of Ben Byram-Wigfield (you can read extensively about his research at his Ancient Groove website). So, starting with Byram-Wigfield's reconstruction of Allegri's original, the ornamented verses from choir two gradually worked their way through a variety of different versions, reaching the famous top C version and then concluding with Christophers' own embellishments on this.  The result was highly satisfying and deserves to be taken up by other choirs. Both the quartet and the choir sang with lovely full tone and the first soprano solo, when needed, had indeed a glorious top C.

James MacMillan's Videns Dominus is the Communion motet for the fifth Sunday in Lent. A rather declamatory piece, it has a striking use of silence. The opening, using the same material sung at different times by two lines rather evoked Salm (the Scottish Gaelic psalm singing), and the vocal lines included MacMillan's familiar, and highly evocative, Scottish twiddles of ornamentation. There was an austerity about the piece, which suited its Lenten setting, though the choir brought it to a passionate climax. Ultimately, rather a haunting piece.

Finally, the first half concluded with Palestrina's eight-part Stabat Mater, written for two four-part choirs with Palestrina's writing generally very homophonic, using the two choirs in dialogue, so the the words were very clear. This enabled Palestrina to be highly expressive when setting the passionate text and Christophers brought this out, encouraging his singers to be dramatic. The choir made quite a big sound, but not a flabby one, nicely fine-grained, quite intense and very vivid. Christophers used quite a swift basic speed, but within this varied the tempo with lots of vibrato.The performance managed to stay very true to Palestrina's music and bring out the inherent drama of the text.

After the Passiontide weeping and wailing of the Stabat Mater, part two opened with the Easter rejoicing of Palestrina's double choir setting of Regina caeli laetare. For the initial sections, Palestrina used the two choirs in dialogue and the two only came together for the first time on the word Resurrexit, with the final section being the only one eight-part all the time. The motet was joyful, with quite busy textures. The choir brought out the uplifting nature of the piece, making a glorious noise at the end.

Palestrina's Vineam meam non custodivi and Pulchrae sung genae tuae come from his set of 29 motets setting texts from the Song of Songs. Popular in his lifetime, they were probably used for devotional gatherings rather than as part of the set liturgy. The ensemble gave both motets a strong architectonic shape, building from careful beauty to intense passion.

Between the two, the sang MacMillan's O Radiant Dawn a setting of an English version of the Latin O antiphon, O oriens, splendor lucis aeternae. Here MacMillan builds in a homophonic passage which sounds like Tallis's O nata lux with a Scots accent. Hauntingly memorable music from such apparently simple effects.

MacMillan's Miserere, setting the same text as Allegri (all 20 verses of Psalm 51), is dedicated to Harry Christophers and the Sixteen premiered the work at the 2009 Flanders Festival. Unlike Allegri's setting, MacMillan's is through-composed though he uses a series of recurring motifs, an long sinuous melodic lines. It was quite a sombre work, opening with harmonised chant in the men which was dark and passionate, but very satisfying. For much of the time, the different sections used interlocking groups of different vocal lines rather than all. The manner was analogous to early Tudor polyphony, but the results very different.  MacMillan also quoted the chant used by Allegri, though in a way which seemed some how contrived. An austerely beautiful work with moments of darkness and moments of radiance.

The concert concluded with the Agnus Dei from Palestrina's Missa Regina Coeli, Palestrina's two polyphonic movements being performed either side of the plainchant Agnus Dei. The glorious texture of the polyphony and sound of the choir made the music profoundly consoling and very satisfying, the way the music builds an edifice in sound from the single opening line. Sometimes I find that Palestrina seems more satisfying to sing than to listen to, but Christophers and his 18 singers brought out the beauty and the passion of the music through the music itself.

The Sixteen's Choral Pilgrimage continues throughout the year, more details from the Sixteen's website.

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