Tuesday 12 November 2013

The Sixteen at Temple Church

The Sixteen, conductor Harry Christophers
The Sixteen, conductor Harry Christophers, brought their programme Ceremony and Devotion: Music for the Tudors to Temple Church on Monday 11 November, as part of the concert series organised by the Temple Music Foundation. A packed Temple Church heard the choir performing music by John Sheppard, William Byrd and Thomas Tallis. The programme explored the Latin church music of all three composers with Sheppard's Media vita and Sacris solemniis, and Tallis's Jesu salvator, saculi redemptis and Iam Christus astra ascendera all written during the reign of Queen Mary when Latin church music played a vital role in the liturgy. Plus Tallis's Miserere mei and Byrd's Laudibus in sanctis, Haec dies and Infelix ego from the reign of Queen Elizabeth when Latin sacred music had a less clear cut role.

They opened the programme with the plainchant hymn Veni creator spiritus sung alternim by the basses and sopranos, initially from the body of the round church and then processing through the nave. The chant was sung at a lovely steady pace with good full toned voices.

Next came Byrd's Laudibus in sanctis from Byrd's Cantiones Sacrae setting a paraphrase of Psalm 150. The text is not liturgical and like many pieces in Cantiones Sacrae Byrd was to a certain extent playing a double game, supplying the Elizabethan gentry with vocal chamber music whilst sending messages to his Roman Catholic co-religionist. The result, here, is dazzling with lots of lively cross rhythms which the Sixteen articulated in a lovely crisp, dancing fashion. This was a performance with real joy, though also not without its stately moments. Christophers speeds were quite steady, very suitable for the building's acoustic, but the performance was enlivened by the choir's articulation.

The choir numbered some 18 singers, with men on the alto line. They made a good choral sound with all the pieces in the programme sung full voice and quite robustly, rising to some very strong climaxes.

Tallis's Jesu salvator, saeculi redemptis is one of a group of hymns and responds for the major feasts of the church surviving from the repertoire of the Chapel Royal under Queen Mary. As we have music from this group by both Tallis and Sheppard, it has been postulated that there might have existed a cycle of Office Music for the Chapel Royal.

Jesu salvator, saeculi redemptis  is the Office Hymn for Compline the Sunday after Easter, as with most settings of hymns Tallis alternates the plainchant with the polyphony. Tallis's polyphonic verses utilise a high soprano part and hymn-like but profoundly satisfying harmony. As in many of his settings, Tallis was brilliant at making something simple yet subtle. In the sixth verse the textures get more complex with some voices pushed to the peak of their range.

Sheppard's Media vita is on altogether a different scale. Essentially the text is the antiphon to the Nunc dimittis at Compline on the major feast-days in the two weeks before Passion Sunday. Sheppard's setting gives us not just the antiphon, but the Nunc Dimittis as well (the only part sung to chant alone), wrapped around by the antiphon text. And to reflect the importance of the feast, the antiphon contains a verse and respond structure, the whole set polyphonically with the verses set for smaller groups,  the first two verses for men's voices, the third for two trebles, two means and bass, and each is followed by all or part of the response Sancte Deus, Sancte fortis, Sancte et misericors Salvator, set each time by Sheppard to the most glorious polyphony. The piece opens with that most haunting text, in the midst of life we are in death.

Christophers and the group performed it at quite a steady tempo, so that Sheppard's long melismatic phrases were not rushed and the whole had a very contemplative feel to it. The two verses for the lower voices were very rich with great depth to the sound, whereas the the third verse gave us a lovely intertwining of high voices. The Sancte Deus, Sancte fortis, Sancte et misericors Salvator, each time it came was sung with glorious amplitude and a lovely firm line, with brightly focusses trebles (the high soprano part). Amazingly melismatic, these sections were fervently done, creating the real feeling that the music meant something. The choir sang very full voiced, so that the climaxes were very strong, but still careful of details and rising to a vibrant climax.

After the interval we heard one of Sheppard's Office Hymns, Sacris solemniis iuncta sint gaudia for the feast of Corpus Christi. The plainchant itself was a fascinating tune (here as elsewhere in the programme being chant from the Sarum rite used by the English court at the time), sung resonantly by the basses. Sheppard's polyphonic verses were richly textures (six voice parts with further sub-divisions), full of fascinating harmonic quirks and false relations. In verse four we had a lovely weaving about of the high voices with only intermittent contributions from the low ones in a texture which may reflect the doctrine of transubstantiation in the text. Verse six, the final polyphonic verse, had a highly complex texture with the trebles rising above everything.

Byrd's joyful Haec Dies followed, rhythms nicely pointed with some fabulous syncopations. The performance flowed beautifully, with the Alleluia's rising to a fervent climax.

Tallis's am Crhstus astra ascendera is another Office Hymn, this time for Pentecost, with chant sung by the tenors alternating with poised, well modulated polyphony. Verse four had some lovely passages for the lower voices, and Tallis often used wide space between the lines. Verse six, the final polyphonic verse, had one of Tallis's clever constructions with a cannon between the treble and the middle voice. In Miserere nostri Tallis takes this further and all but one of the seven voices is in canon. The result is a little miracle as the piece sounds perfectly natural and received a very poised performance, the relatively slow moving texture anchored by the slowest parts.

Finally Byrd's Infelix Ergo a setting of a paraphrase of Psalm 50. The texture here was quite flexible, again relatively stately and rather moving. Each of the three parts started from quiet poise but Christophers encouraged the singers to a vibrant climax at the conclusion of each part, the motet ended with a wonderfully resonant Miserere mei.

This was a very fine programme, the choir's fervent full-voiced performance filling the church in fine style. And it was heartening to see so many people enjoying a programme of relatively sober Tudor polyphony. The audience gave a whole-hearted response at the end of the concert, but though the programme was relatively short we didn't get an encore.

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