Monday 24 September 2012

The Sixteen at Hatfield Chamber Music Festival

The Old Palace, Hatfield
On Sunday (23 September), the Sixteen took time out from the final week of their Choral Pilgrimmage to perform at the final concert of the Hatfield Chamber Music Festival. Taking place in the atmospheric great hall of the Old Palace, built in 1485, the concert took us on a tour of British choral music, highlighting links and indebtednesses to the past. Entitled An Immortal Legacy, Harry Christophers and his 18 singers gave us a programme which encompassed Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons, Morley, Britten, Tippett and MacMillan.

The opened the programmed with four of Tallis's tunes for Archbishop Parker's Psalter; famous melodies which include the tune that Vaughan Williams used as the basis for his Tallis Fantasia. The Sixteen performed each with a different group of singers, working up from just a few tenors and basses to the full choir. These are relatively straightforward pieces, but Christophers and his singers brought out their simple beauty. They followed with one of Tallis's settings of the text Salvator Mundi, the group showing their familiar virtues of beauty of line and fine vocal control. Here we came across the first of many false relations in the Tudor music; the spiciness relished by the singers.

The acoustic, just nicely resonant, helped the singers give the music a clarity which could not be achieved in a more resonant church. This meant that the programme could include secular pieces which might not work so well in livelier acoustics. There followed next a group of three madrigals. Morley's April is in my mistress' face, Gibbons' The Silver Swan and Byrd's This sweet and merry month of May. Perhaps the group of singers used was slightly big for performing madrigals. But this did not matter as their control and delicacy in the Morely was lovely, with the words lightly bounced. The words were less clear in the Gibbons, but here the group's tone was well blended and simply beautiful, with a very fine legato line. The Byrd felt a little bottom heavy at times, but the feeling for the words was very apposite with some superb rhythmic bounce in the second section.

Next  a fascinating pairing of James MacMillan's communion motet Sedebit Dominum Rex (one of his Strathclyde motets, written 2005-7) and John Sheppard's respond In manus tuas III (probably written in the 1550's). Both mix chant with polyphony; Sheppard using the chant of the Sarum Rite, MacMillan his own Celtic influenced melodies. Both works received fine performances, but I found especially affecting the way they choir inflected MacMillan's distinctively shaped melodies.

The first half finished with a performance of Tippett's Five Spirituals from A Child of Our Time. The use of a relatively small choir to sing these pieces emphasised the links between Tippett's music and that of previous generations, despite Tippett's use of Negro Spirituals. Christophers and his group achieved some very beautiful and very fascinating textures in the pieces; shaping the melodies, but giving the livelier sections rhythm and delicacy. Kirstie Hopkins was the soprano soloist, effortlessly floating beautiful lines above the choir. She was joined in the final number by soprano Alexandra Kidgell. Mark Dobell was the mellifluous tenor soloist, with Ben Davies the warm, soft-grained bass.

After the interval we had three of Tallis's sacred pieces (all probably written during Queen Elizabeth I's reign), O nata lux, O sacrum convivium and Loquebantur variis linguis. In O nata lux the first sopranos gave us a lovely poised and floated high treble part, with the whole choir daring to sing very quietly. O sacrum convivium was a more substantial piece, impressively brought over, with Loquebantur being shorter but wonderfully vigorous.

Another interesting pairing followed. MacMillan's Mitte manum tuam and Byrd's Laudibus in Sanctis. MacMillan's motet is another of his Strathclyde motets, again mixing MacMillan's distinctively shaped chant with polyphonic and homophonic passages, the chant accompanied by atmospheric drones. The text's Alleluia passage was repeated, the first time gloriously rapturous, the second time the rapture descending to hushed quiet.

By contrast Byrd's athletic setting of a paraphrase of Psalm 150 from his 1591 Cantiones Sacrae. Christophers took the piece at quite a steady pace, but this gave the singers space for music wonderful rhythmic felicity, all done with a lightly accurate touch.

The work that I felt was missing from the programme was Tippett's Plebs Angelica, a complex piece whose rhythmic dexterity reflects on Tippett's knowledge of Tudor polyphony.

Christophers and his group next gave us Britten's Choral Dances from Gloriana. As a choral singers myself, these are quite familiar pieces, but there was nothing hackneyed or run of the mill about the performance from the Sixteen. They brought out the very different and distinctive textures which Britten gave to each of the movements. In the opening movement, sung with strong choral tone, the words tended to rather come and go somewhat, which was a shame. In later movements there were some beautiful quiet moments and some very dexterous rhythmic felicity, concluding with the last movement sung with a lovely sense of line and the feeling of the voices distinct but related.

Finally, we heard the remaining five of Tallis's tunes from Archbishop Parker's Psalter. Again the simple beauty of the music brought out, with each tune sung by a different configuration of singers.

This was a fascinating programme, finely sung. And it was a pleasure to be able to her Christophers and the Sixteen in the relatively more intimate acoustic of the Old Palace at Hatfield.

Recent reviews:-

Hatfield Chamber Music Festival at Hatfield House (21/09/2012)

Eugene Onegin, Grange Park Rising Stars at Cadogan Hall (20/09/2012)

The Magic Flute, English National Opera (13/09/2012)

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