Friday 21 November 2014

A Golden Age - The Sixteen in early baroque polyphonic music

The Temple Church
Lotti, Caldara, D.Scarlatti, Melgas, Rebelo; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Temple Music Foundation at Temple Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 20 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Exciting and sometimes bravura exploration of early baroque polyphonic music from Italy and Portugal

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen gave a concert at Temple Church for the Temple Music Foundation on 20 November 2014, whose title was A Golden Age. A trap for the unwary perhaps as the concert concentrated on polyphonic music written in the early Baroque period with composers paying conscious or unconscious homage with music in the stile antico. Thus we had music by Italian composers Lotti, Caldara and Domenico Scarlatti, plus a pair of their Portuguese contemporaries Diogo Dias Melgas and Joao Lourenco Rebelo.

The concert opened with the eight-part Crucifixus by Antonio Lotti (c1667 - 1740). It comes from a larger work and was written for the court at Dresden, and remains notable for the intense combination of polyphony with a more intense romantic sensibility using those incredible suspensions. Given a precise, beautifully placed and expressive performance by the Sixteen, it was sung from behind the audience with the singers in the round church.

Diogo Das Melgas (1638 -1700) seems to have spent his life living and working in Evora in Portugal, where he became mestre da capela at the Cathedral. His dignified yet expressive Good Friday sequence Popule meus - Improperia combined relatively proper polyphonic writing with colourful touches in the harmony and a definitely non-Renassiance approach in his expressive handling of the text. The result was simple but moving. It was sung by the choir in two groups, forming a dialogue as one group remained in the round church whilst the other (with Harry Christophers) processed to the main stage in front of the altar. The resulting separation took advantage of the church's structure and gave an interesting spatial dimension to Melgas's dialogue.

Domenico Scarlatti (1685 - 1757) is best known for his huge body of harpsichord music written when he lived and worked on the Iberian peninsula. During his early career in Italy he wrote a wide variety of music, including operas and sacred music though you do rather get the impression that his career remained somewhat under the shadow of his more famous father, Alessandro. Domenico Scarlatti's Iste confessor was a lovely little hymn for soprano solo, Emilia Morton, and chorus with continuo accompaniment (Frances Kelly, harp, Alastair Ross, organ, David Miller, theorbo). There was just a simple but lovely tune, with the soprano singing verses in alternation with the choir. Morton gave nicely elegant performance with some neatly expressive ornamentation.

Melgas's Lamentacao de Quinta Feira Santa is the familiar Lamentations for Holy Week. Melgas set the text for a group of soloists (Kirsty Hopkins, Sally Dunkley, Jeremy Budd, Eamonn Dougan), choir and continuo with the soloists forming a sort of semi chorus. Melgas's interweaving of solo and tutti created a fabuously richly textured piece which took the expressive possibilities of polyphonic music towards their limits. His Salve Regina was another a cappella piece, polyphonic again but full of richly expressive details such as sighing motifs, which rendered the music almost romantic at times.

Joao Lourenco Rebelo (1610 - 1665) was Portguese and his career included patronage from King John IV. His Panis Angelicus had homophonic sections which kept breaking out into polphony.

The Crucifixus by Antonio Caldara (c1667 - 1740) is a 16-voiced piece which seems to build on Lotti's combination of polyphony with expressive chromaticism creating a series of intense, expressive moments which then dissove into something simpler. The result was somewhat like Lotti on stereoids, and was finely performed by the singers.

The final work in the programme was Domenico Scarlatti's 10-part setting of the Stabat Mater, a work which also explores the intense and expressive possibilities of polyphonic music, but the way Scarlatti used the solo moments and tutti made you think that he brought hints of the opera house into the piece too. The soloists were Julie Cooper, Charlotte, Mobbs, Kirsty Hopkins, Alexandra Kidgell, Christopher Royall, Ian Aitkenhead, Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell, Ben Davies, Stuart Young.

Christophers matched the work's baroque sensibility by having his singers give quite strongly sung performances, whilst keeping the focus and sense of line. This was quite a full blooded performance and Christophers speeds ensured that the work came over as rather bravura too. Overall it was poised but shot through with moments of drama and at the end Christophers really whipped up his singers in to a virtuoso climax.
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