Monday, 27 October 2014

Popes, Power and Patronage in Brighton

BREMF Consort of Voices
BREMF Consort of Voices
Rome: Popes, Patronage and Power; BREMF Consort of Voices, Deborah Roberts; Brighton Early Music Festival at St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 25 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Fascinating and illuminating exploration of the early musical history of the Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel was founded by Pope Sixtus in the 1470's and Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) looked at the first 150 years of the chapel's musical history in their intriguing programme Rome: Popes, Patronage and Power at St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton on Saturday 25 October 2014. Deborah Roberts conducted the BREMF Consort of Voices and Nigel Pittman was the narrator.

The first half of the programme concentrated on the earlier period, with music by Josquin Des Prez and his contemporaries,  Marbriano de Orto and Gaspar Weerbeke. The concert opened with the Kyrie from Guillaume Dufay's influential Missa L'homme arme and the first half was structured around mass movements from different composers Missa L'Homme Arme. The second half concentrated on the music of Palestrina, alongside that of his younger contemporary Cristobal de Morales and his successor Felice Anerio. The evening ended with a performance of Gregorio Allegri's Miserere. This rather varied musical diet was woven into a whole via a narration from Nigel Pittman (written by Deborah Roberts and Nigel Pittman) which traced the sometimes scandalous history of the various popes and the music that they commissioned.

Guillaume Dufay (1397 - 1474) died just before the Sistine Chapel was started, but such was his renown that his music was in the choir's collection (which was unusual at a time when singers concentrated on living composers). The Kyrie from his Missa L'Homme Arme introduced us to sound world where the individual vocal lines have great complexity and rhythmic flexibility and where the metre is not limited by bar lines, but which comes together into a lovely whole. For the performances in the first half, the consort used the singers as a pool from which to select performers in groups, the top lines were generally taken by altos with a mixture of altos and tenors on the middle lines.


Marbriano de Orto (c1460 - 1529) joined the Sistine Chapel choir as a singer in 1482. The Gloria from his Missa L'homme arme continued the same sound-world, with attractively rhythmically vital lines flowing round a steady cantus firmus, with frequent chances to rhythm and structure. De Orto's music was new to me and the performance intrigued me and I hope to hear more of his work.

Gaspar Weerbeke (c1445 - 1529) originally worked in the chapel of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. On Sforza's murder Weerbeke joined the Papal chapel. His Dulcis amica Dei was written for the re-consecration of the church of Santa Maria della Pace after a re-building to celebrate the discovery of a miraculous bleeding fresco of the Virgin. It was a soft grained, gentle piece and appealingly flowing vocal lines.

In 1489 Josquin des Prez (1450 - 1521) arrived at the Papal court. He was considered the finest composer in Europe. His motet Illibata Dei Virgo Nutrix had a number of humorous elements in it, including the first letters of each line of text spelling out the composer's name. Its flexible vocal lines were highly melismatic, and the piece was constructed as a series of two-part dialogues punctuated by tutti passages.

De Orto's Salve regis mater sanctissimi had a text in praise of the new Pope, Alexander. The motet again had flowing, melismatic lines round a cantus firmus enlivened by rhythmically complex details. The BREMF Consort of Voices showed a lovely fluency in their shaping of the many notes.

The first half concluded with a pair of movements from masses by Josquin, the Agnus Dei from Missa L'homme arme super voces musicales and the 3rd Agnus Dei from Missa L'homme arme Sexti toni. The first one, written whilst Josquin was employed at the Sistine Chapel, included a remarkable section of three against two, with three voices singing the same melody at different speeds - a remarkable tour de force in bringing it off. The gentle Agnus Dei concluded, perhaps significantly, in vigorous fashion with the Dona Nobis Pacem. The 3rd Agnus Dei from Missa L'homme arme Sexti toni was equally complex with double canons around a cantus firmus, producing pleasing cascades of notes. Like Thomas Tallis, Josquin seemed adept at creating complex structures which hid their complexity under great beauty.

For the second half the concert we moved to a more familiar sound world with music by Morales and Palestrina. the sopranos joined the choir to give a more traditional choral line-up. This represents the period when the male falsettists on the top-line (boys seem to have disappeared around the mid 15th century) were replace/supplemented by castratos with a concomitant raising of the pitch of the vocal line.

Throughout the concert the singers exploited the full possibilities of the church's space with performances from a variety of locations, to great effect.

Cristobal de Morales (c1500 - 1552) arrived in Rome in 1535 and his motet, Jubilate Deo celebrated the peace between the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and King Francois I of Frances, arranged by Pope Paul following the Sack of Rome. A joyful piece with many moving parts, the choir (now at full complement with 25 singers) made a good strong sound with some nice detail.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 - 1594) was born two years after the Sack of Rome. He worked all his life in Rome, both at the Sistine Chapel (despite being married) and the Capella Giulia in the Vatican. For the performance of the Gloria from his Missa Tue es Petrus a 18 the BREMF Consort of Voices was joined by singers from a BREMF workshop which took place on 11 October. The work is for three, six-part choirs and each choir was placed at a different point in the church with Deborah Roberts, both traffic policemen, General and inspirer, in the centre. Palestrina writes on a large scale with single choirs answering each other across the church, ending with a glorious tutti. The results were marvellous, and lovely to hear a work which I was only aware of on record.

The following two Palestrina pieces, sung by the BREMF Consort of Voices alone, were for double choir. First the well known setting of the Stabat Mater and then the Nunc Dimittis. In both, we had a lovely strong sound from the choir with the poignancy of the Stabat Mater complemented by the radiant ending of the Nunc Dimittis.

Felice Anerio (c1550 - 1614) replaced Palestrina as official composer to the Papal Court and his Salve Regina was a well made piece with a lovely richness to the harmony.

We then skipped a bit of history to jump to 1629, when Pope Urban appointed Gregorio Allegri (1582 - 1652) and the evening concluded with Allegri's Miserere. The piece was performed in the traditional version, which essentially arose in the 20th century may involve a misreading of the score (for those interested in the work's history then a fascinating essay is available for Download from Ben Byram-Wigfield's website). For this performance, Deborah Roberts changed hats. John Hancorn conducted and Deborah sang the soprano solo (complete with top C). The soloists did indeed vary the ornamentation, and this was a fine conclusion to the evening.

The BREMF Consort of Voices is a non-professional group and the evening involved a learning great many notes as well as visiting unfamiliar performance styles. Throughout, under the inspiring direction of Deborah Roberts, they gave strong and stylistically confident performances. The results opened our eyes and ears to the fascinating aural history of the Sistine Chapel.

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