Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Siglo de Oro at Spitalfields Festival

Patrick Allies and Siglo de Oro
Sandstrom, Howells, Hildegard, Mouton et al; Siglo de Oro, Patrick Allies; Spitalfields Winter Music Festival at St Leonard's Church, Shoreditch
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 09 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Imaginative programme and beauty of tone from young choral ensemble

Siglo de Oro is a young vocal ensemble directed by Patrick Allies. Formed by London students in 2008, the group's name refers to the Golden Century of Spanish music and art. Allies brought the 14 person group to the Spitalfields Music Winter Festival at St Leonard's Church, Shoreditch, on Tuesday 9 December 2014 when they performed a programme of Christmas music ranging from Hildegard of Bingen to Giles Swayne and Karl Jenkins. The programme was arranged in four thematic sections, The Rose, The Mother, The Mystery, The Light. There was an eclectic mix of composers with music by Jan Sandstrom, Herbert Howells, Hildegard of Bingen, Jean Mouton, Benjamin Britten, Robert Parsons, Giles Swayne, Cristobal de Morales, Morten Lauridsen, Josquin des Prez, Thomas Tallis, Peter Cornelius, Orlande de Lassus, Eric Whitacre and Karl Jenkins.

Allies and his group linked this diverse mixture into an attractive and coherent programme with a clear thematic narrative. The choice of early music was nicely imaginative mixing the well known and lesser known, but the more recent repertoire seemed to show a slightly less deft hand with an over reliance on the well known. In particular the contemporary pieces all seemed to place too heavy a reliance on works from the Lauridsen/Whitacre axis, leaving Giles Swayne's Magnificat as the only examplar of grittier, meatier styles.

The group generally sang in a half circle, with the voices mixed up. This gave them a lovely blend and in fact the radiant tone of the choir with superb mix of voices was one of their notable features. Many of the pieces in the concert sounded ravishing and a work like Eric Whitacre's Lux Aurumque positively shimmered.


They opened with an arrangement of Michael Praetorius's Es ist ein Ros enstsprungen by Jan Sandstrom (born 1954) with Det ar en ros utsprungen. This has the same slow moving shimmering textures familiar from Lauridsen and Whitacre, as Sandstrom used two choirs singing the same choral at different speeds to magical effect. The piece certainly showcased Siglo de Oro's strengths with their control of sound and texture. This was followed a medieval carol Ther is no rose of swych vertu, a three part piece sung by sopranos, altos and tenors without conductor, in which tutti sections alternated with expressive duets showcasing some lovely clear voices. Finally in this group, Herbert Howell's popular A Spotless Rose, with a fine solo baritone from Joshua Edwards. This was altogether a poised performance, notable for the clarity of texture and flexibility of line.

The women then performed Hildegard of Bingen's O viridissima virga  (again without conductor) in which a series of fine soloists alternated with tutti, creating a lovely fluid but firm line. This was not a particularly historically inspired performance, but it gave an involving interpretation of Hildegard's music. Nesciens Mater by Jean Mouton (c1459 - 1522) is written for two choirs with both choirs singing the same music two bars apart. Allies explained this in his spoken introduction, but the results entirely disguise the cunning construction and the choir gave us a richly slow-moving gorgeousness. Benjamin Britten's A Hymn to the Virgin was written whilst he was still at school and remains a superb piece of writing for choir and semi-chorus (here four singers at the back of the church), creating a highly atmospheric piece. Blend and surface beauty were the watchwords of this fine performance. Robert Parsons (1535 - 1571/2) Ave Maria is, in its own way, as lovely and as remarkable and here received a gentle and relaxed performance which left me wondering whether it could have been more intense. Finally the choir finished the first part with Giles Swayne's Magnificat, a work written after a visit to Africa and the musical texture weaves in a Senegalese ploughing song to imaginative effect. Here, the choir's placing and emphasis on blend seemed not quite to have the best effect. The disparate placement of the basses was not ideal for the vigorously declaimed passages. For all the choir, though there were fine details the overall results were not quite as crisp as they could be. But Allies and his singers delivered the work with a fine swing.

Part two, The Mystery, opened with Pastores, dicite, quidnam vidistis? by Cristobal de Morales (c1500 - 1533) which was performed with a lovely sense of movement and rhythmic fluidity. O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen (born 1943) has become something of a modern classic, and Siglo de Oro gave us a relaxed, translucent sound with a radiant beauty of tone. O virgo virginum by Josquin des Prex (c1450 - 1521) was altogether darker and richer, with a texture which included four male voices to give a seductive depth to the tone. The constantly moving lower parts created a sense of vibrant textures.

The final section, The Light, opened with Tallis's small but perfectly formed O Nata Lux, then Ben McKee sang the baritone solo in Peter Cornelius's The Three Kings, a Christmas standard for choirs everywhere as Cornelius (1824 - 1874) combines the chorale Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern with his own entrancing solo baritone melody. The choir sang it in English, to highly communicative effect. Orlande de Lassus's Omnes de Saba is a wonderfully grand piece for two choirs and the singers responded with a big, vibrant sound. It would have been nice, however, to have had the two choirs separate rather than mingled, as Lassus pays homage to the cori sprezzati techniques of his pupil and friend Gabrieli in the work. Another modern classic came next, Eric Whitacre's Lux aurumque. The text is not traditional but in fact a modern one, which references earlier models but the main interest was the shimmering sound quality which the singers brought to the work. Finally, Karl Jenkins distinctive and vigorous re-creation of the traditional Gaudete from the 1592 Pies Cantiones. Jenkins starts the piece straight enough, but each verse got progressively closer to his own style until the final Gaudete really goes off on one.

The choir gave us an encore, Andrew Carter's arrangement of The Twelve Days of Christmas in which Carter works in a variety of different musical styles and quotes from familiar classics in version which is either ingenious or tedious depending on the point of view, but the choir and the audience certainly loved it.

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