Thursday 8 January 2015

The Power of Plainsong

The Sixteen
Perotin, Leonin, Sheppard, Victoria, Tallis; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 07 2015
Star rating: 5.0

The Sixteen exploring the complex way plainchant was used by composers from the 12th to 17th centuries

The opening week of the Minimalism Unwrapped series at Kings Place began at the beginning on Wednesday 7 January 2015, with Harry Christophers and The Sixteen performing a programme based around plainchant. But the concert developed in ways which seemed rather far from minimalism as the choir sang a series of richly textured pieces by Leonin, John Sheppard, Thomas Tallis, Tomas Luis de Victoria, and Perotin. In fact even the programme note seemed confused as to why the concert was in a series on Minimalism. 

The power of the Kings Place series is that over the coming year it is examining not only the fundamental works in the minimalist canon, but music and composers which formed key influences. As minimalism was a reaction to the complexity of modernist music in the 1950's and 1960's, the series is also examining other reactions against maximalism, other forms of historical minimalism. The Sixteen's concert can be seen in this context as Christophers and his singers presented the minimalist plainchant followed by a series of experiments from composers who tried to incorporate this in more complex structures. (Almost as if some future composers decided to add an elaborate counter-melody to a Philip Glass piece). As Christophers explained in his spoken introduction before the second half, Perotin's Viderunt Omnes, performed in Notre Dame de Paris at Christmas 1198 must have had an effect that was electric, coming as it did in a sea of seamless plainchant; Christophers likened it to the effect of the first performance of the Rite of Spring.

We started at the very beginning, with the tenors and basses of the choir singing the lovely plainchant Gradual Viderunt Omnes followed by the version composed by Leonin (fl. 1150 - 1201) for Notre Dame de Paris. In this version the chant is slowed down tremendously and sung in long notes by the basses, over the top a series of solo tenors produced virtuoso cascades of melismas and slides. The contrast was, quite rightly, astonishing. It was interesting to see Stephen Harrold (of the Hilliard Ensemble) among the tenors as this was repertoire that I strongly associate with the Hilliards.

We then moved into musical territory more central to The Sixteen's repertoire, Gaude, Gaude Maria by John Sheppard. Here Sheppard set the Latin sequence, incorporating the plainchant in a variety of ways. The opening section is polyphonic, with the chant as cantus firmus, the middle section is pure chant but for the final one Sheppard seeks to free himself from the chant. The polyphony is cantus firmus free, but at the end of each line the basses sing the correct chant to the syllable 'aah', a curious and magical effect.

I very much associate the sound world of Sheppard's music with The Sixteen, with its widely spaced lines, open textures and lovely calm unfolding. They sang with full tone, but brought clarity and vibrancy to the individual lines, whilst Christophers direction was unhurried but still kept the music flowing.

Tallis's short but wonderful Miserere nostri comes from the Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur which he and Byrd published in 1575. The piece hides its complexity under a layer of seductive beauty, but Tallis uses all sorts of ingenious structural devices with multiple canons to create layers of slow but differently moving lines.

The final work in the first half was Victoria's five-part Salve Regina, a work in which each section is introduced by chant. Victoria creates straight-forward dignified polyphony with only occasional flourishes (such as on the word Suspiramus), which The Sixteen rendered with poise but also managed to give it a suitably emotional undercurrent.

The second half opened with more chant, the women sang the lovely plainchant Salve Regina which was followed by Perotin's Notum fecit Dominus (from Viderunt omnes which was written for Christmas 1198 at Notre Dame de Paris). It remains an astonishing work, as the basses sang the plainchant very slowly, over which the tenors gave us the vibrantly extravagant ornamented vocal line. As with the Leonin, any sense of the words is lost and the effect is pure visceral thrill.

John Sheppard's Libera nos, salva nos is an altogether more restrained and poised work. Setting the daily prayer from Magdalen College, Oxford where Sheppard was choir master, the piece provided an sense of endless stretching forward of intertwining lines with just chant in the middle. The group then sang both versions of Sheppard's respond In manuas tuas with Tallis's Iam Christus astra ascenderat in the middle. The first In manuas tuas used ten singers (sopranos, altos and basses) to created a concentrated yet magical performance. Tallis's larger scale work alternated chant and polyphony with the choir making something rich and special of Tallis's setting of the Whitsun hymn. The second In manuas tuas, sung without sopranos, had a simple texture but was no less affecting.

The final work in the programme was Victoria's eight-part setting of the Salve regina starts with the two choirs alternating in the classic way of writing for two choirs, but for the second part of the text (from Eia ergo ) the texture become really eight part with Victoria overlapping the music for the two choirs and creating a lovely sense of dialogue. Christophers and his singers really built up the work to reach a vibrant and virile climax.

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