Tuesday, 19 December 2017

The Sixteen at Christmas

Marco Galvani
Marco Galvani
Poulenc, Palestrina, Marco Galvani, Allan Bullard, John Joubert, John Rutter, Kim Panter, Herbert Howells; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 18 2017 Star rating: 4.0
Poulenc, Palestrina and a brand new carol at the heart of The Sixteen's Christmas programme

The Sixteen at Christmas, the programme from Harry Christophers and The Sixteen which debuted at the Sage, Gateshead, and which we caught at Cadogan Hall on Monday 18 December 2017, had the advantage of combining familiar carols with more unusual fare and some meatier items. The centre piece of the programme was a pair of works by Francis Poulenc, his seasonal motets, Quatre motets pour le temps de Noel, from 1951/52 and his Winter sequence setting Paul Eluard, Un soir de neige written in Occupied Paris in 1944. In an intriguing bit of compare-and-contrast, the choir also sang a group of Christmas motets by Palestrina, setting the same texts as used by Poulenc. The French theme continued music by Costeley and a French chanson by Lassus.

A new carol by Marco Galvani, On Christmas Morn, commissioned to celebrate Classic FM's 25th anniversary, was joined by Kim Porter's Christmas Eve, and Herbert Howells A spotless rose, plus less familiar works by Alan Bullard, John Joubert, John Rutter and Bob Chilcott, and there were familiar carols too.

The first of Poulenc's Quatre motets pour le temps de Noel, 'O magnum mysterium' started dark and sombre and the sopranos floated their first entry beautifully though the first note was not quite effortless. This was quite a slow, beautifully shaped performance with little hint of the music's awkward corners. 'Quem vidistis pastores' was all transparency and fluidity, with lovely rhythmic pointing, plus firmness of purpose at 'Dicentes'. 'Videntes stellam', quite steady and rather striking, was not a little mystical. 'Hodie Christus natus est' was crisply vivid and articulated, rather than going full pelt. I could imagine a performance that was more dramatically intense, but this one was full of details and expressive beauty.
The four movements of Un soir de neige form a compact and striking sequence, with Poulenc's lean settings of Eluard's elusive poems having little spare flesh. The sombre and grave first movement, 'De grandes cuillers de neige'. started with a highly sculptural soprano line, and beautifully placed harmonies from the choir. 'La bonne neige' was more impulsive, with mobile textures and a lovely richness in the repeat of the first verse. 'Bois meurtri' was notable for the sonorousness of its widely spaced lines, and 'La nuit le froid la solitude' was vivid, full of rhythmic energy. Overall this was a performance of great immediacy and expressivity, rather then bleak austerity.

In between the two Poulenc works was Marco Galvani's On Christmas Morn setting a poem by Anne Bronte. Galvani has created a complex web of vocal lines which make for a series of striking textures leading to a strong climax. Galvani's new work was paired with a beautifully constructed carol from 2016 by Kim Porter (also a member of The Sixteen), Christmas Eve setting Christina Rosetti, and Herbert Howells' A Spotless Rose, all floating lines and shapely phrases.

Towards the end of the programme, Palestrina's O magnum mysterium, Videntes stellam and Hodie Christus natus est formed a fascinating group, a chance to hear another great composer's take on the same texts ('Videntes stellam' formed part two of O magnum mysterium. In all three motets, Palestrina seemed to be exploring richness and expressiveness of textures, with much double choir and cori-spezzati writing. Performances were poised and expressive, with the lovely textures complemented by lively rhythms.

We opened with a sequence which started with Alan Bullard's engaging Glory to the Christ Child, cantering along full of rhythmic felicity, the gentle lyricism of  John Joubert's There is no rose and John Rutter's There is a flower with its lovely soprano solo. There was also an early French group, with the appealing and lively Allons, gay, gay gay bergeres by Costeley and the quietly sonorous La nuit foride et sombre by Lassus.

Spread amongst the programme were arrangements of more traditional carols, including some lesser known ones such as the old Basque I saw a maiden. I have to confess that, for me, the first half of the concert only really took off with the Poulenc motets, and that there seemed to be a little too much polite good taste and not enough old fashioned vigour. In the second half, it was also the more serious items which counted the most, and the traditional carols, Somerset Carol and Past three a clock were too polite and not rumbustious enough.

We finished, however, with Bob Chilcott's Pilgrim Jesus, setting a poem by Kevin Crossley Holland, a strikingly bright piece full of vivid rhythms.  We were treated to two encores, The Carol of the Bells and Ding, dong merrily on high.

Alan Bullard Glory to the Christ Child
John Joubert There is no rose
Traditional Old Basque (arr. Edgar Pettman) I saw a maiden
John Rutter There is a flower
Traditional Christmas Eve (The Lord at first did Adam make)
Costeley Allons, gay bergeres
Lassus La nuit froide et sombre
Traditional French (arr. Kitson) Quelle est cette odeur
Poulenc Quatre motets pour le temps de Noel
Kim Porter Christmas Eve
Howells A spotless rose
Marco Galvani On Christmas Morn (World premiere performances)*
Traditional Somerset Carol
Poulenc Un soir de neige
Traditional (arr. Charles Wood) Past three o clock
Palestrina O magnum mysterium; Quen vidistis pastores?; Videntes stellam
Hodie Christus natus est
Bob Chilcott Pilgrim Jesus

*Co-commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society and Classic FM for the 25th anniversary of Classic FM.

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