Sunday 4 May 2014

The Sixteen's Choral Pilgrimage visits Croydon

Croydon Minster - photo credit Randall Morrow
Croydon Minster
photo credit Randall Morrow
The Voice of the Turtle Dove - music by Sheppard, Davy and Mundy: The Sixteen, Eamonn Dougan: Croydon Minster
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 30 2014
Star rating: 4.0

The Sixteen in fine form in some glorious Tudor polyphony

The Sixteen's Choral Pilgrimage 2014 (their 14th) returns to the choir's roots by exploring music of composers they were associated with at their founding, John Sheppard (1515 - 1559), William Mundy (1529 - 1591) and Richard Davy (1465 - 1521). The programme consisted of a group of very substantial works by the composers along with smaller ones. They opened the Pilgrimage at St. John's College Chapel, Cambridge and I caught up with the choir on the third date of the tour, on Wednesday 30 April 2014, at Croydon Minster.

The majority of Choral Pilgrimage concerts are conducted by Harry Christophers, but the 30 April concert was one of a few with Eamonn Dougan, the choir's Associate Conductor, in charge (Harry Christophers was in Boston conducting the Handel and Haydn Society). The full programme was Sheppard's Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria, Mundy's Adolescentulus sum ego, Davy's O Domine caeli terraeque creator, Sheppard's Libera nos (both I and II) and his In manuas tuas (both I and II), Davy's Ah, mine heart, remember thee well and finally Mundy's Vox patris caelestis.

The opened with Sheppard's Gaude, gaude, gaude Mariam a large scale respond for six voices which dates from the reign of Queen Mary I, a final late flowering of Roman Catholic polyphony in England. there were eighteen singers, so this was very much a choral sound rather than a consort. The Sixteen made a rich yet focused sound; it is a very particular sound, distinctive to the group. Dougan's tempi were steady and we were able to appreciate the steady unfolding of the rich polyphony. Sheppard based his piece on the plainchant, which he placed in the baritone voice, anchoring the whole and he alternated polyphony with pure chant. But then, at the words O mater alma Christi we had a glorious high voiced texture, alternating with low voices singing chant but with no words, just Ah!. In the lovely acoustic of Croydon Minster (medieval in foundation but heavily rebuilt in the 19th century after a fire), the piece made a glorious sound.

Next came Mundy's Adolescentulus sum ego, written during the reign of Elizabeth I for the Chapel Royal (which continued to sing Latin). It is a psalm setting (from Psalm 119) and in the modern style without cantus firmus, through-composed polyphony. As might be expected, the work gives off no sense of 'smells and bells' nor does it hint at chant. But the work's rich sound had a less austere feel than the Sheppard.

Mundy's imitative polyphony gave a rather distinctive rocking motion to the opening section. Dougan and the choir made the work calmly beautiful with a sort of relaxed poised. I could imagine, perhaps, a more intense performance but this was one which suited the large scale ecclesiastical spaces used for the tour.

The Eton Choirbook
The Eton Choirbook
Richard Davy is perhaps the least known of the three composers featured in the concert. A number of his works are included in the Eton Choir Book and this is the sole source for his motet O Domine cale terraque creator. Davy set the work for large scale sections of slow moving harmony alternating with solo sections. These latter particularly, were full of long melismatic passages (including one notable on a long 'ee' vowel), reminiscent of a composer like Fairfax, where you can lose sight of what word is being sung. But Davy also used quite a few soloists so sections of the work were almost semi-chorus. A subtle performance but a richly varied one which rose to a strong climax.

During the interval there was a chance to explore the minster. It might be situated in a rather depressing part of Croydon city centre, but it is a lovely building and many of the monuments were salvaged from the 19th century fire and restored, including the tomb of Archbishop Whitgift.

Sheppard's two settings of the respond Libera nos have unclear origins. He was at Magdalen College, Oxford (as was Davy) and the college statutes mention the text so this may be significant. We don't even know if the two Libera nos settings are one work or two; both use seven voices which was quite remarkable for the time. The Sixteen performed them as one work and certainly had me convinced of the rightness of that decision. Sheppard wrote a slow moving texture weaving over a bass chant, creating something magical and remarkable. The Sixteen performed the respond in full with chant and repeats (unlike some recent performances I have heard) and this helps make sense of the structure of the piece.

In manus tuas is a text from Compline, and both Sheppard's settings reflect the gentle end of the day. The four-part setting was sung by just ten singers. An effortless performance, full of poise and a vibrant sense of what the music means.

Davy's secular but devotional piece Ah, mine heart, remember thee well was probably written for one of the occasions when the members of Magdalen College were allowed to stay behind after the evening meal to sing songs and recite poems (a lovely image!). It is an austerely expressive piece in which three soloists (soprano, tenor and bass) alternated with three-part choir. It reminded me in some ways of Byrd's three-part devotional songs.

Sheppard's three part In manus tuas was sung by all twelve men (altos, tenors and basses) giving the piece a warm dark sound. Its slow unfolding and calm beauty must be lovely to hear in the context of Compline.

Finally, the great treat of the evening, Mundy's Vox Patris Caelestis. I had always been used to regarding this as a votive anthem to the BVM written in the context of Queen Mary I's accession, setting texts from the Song of Songs. But, in an article in the programme book John Milsom argues convincingly for it being used in one of the grand ceremonial moments which took place on Queen Mary I's progress through the City of London the day before her coronation.

Whatever its origins it is a glorious and substantial work. 20 minutes long in Eamonn Dougan's relatively fleet performance, I have heard longer ones. But the performance flowed well and never felt rushed. The way Mundy wrote for soloists as well as tutti introduced a lively note of contrast into the work and Dougan ensured that the choir built up quite a head of steam. There were also some lovely solo moments. In Veni de corporalis mortali there was a lovely rich tenor, baritone, bass texture, and in Veni ad me, Assuerum meum the magical combination of divided upper voices and basses achieving a complex yet transparent texture. The final tutti section brought the work to a really vibrant and vivid conclusion.

The programme book for the tour is admirable with not one but three articles on the composers' works, Sally Dunkley's general overview, Roger Bray on Sheppard and Davy's connection of Magdalen College, and John Milsom on Sheppard and Vox patris caelestis.

The programme was warmly received but there was no encore, making it feel rather truffle like - relatively short but very rich indeed.

The Sixteen's Choral Pilgrimage continues until 25 October 2014, see their website for details.
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