Friday 12 June 2015

Flight of Angels: The Sixteen's 2015 Choral Pilgrimage

Chancel of Croydon Minster
Chancel of Croydon Minster
Flight of Angels - sacred music by Guerrero and Lobo; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Croydon Minster
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 10 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Lovely exploration of music from the Spanish Golden Age

I caught up with Harry Christophers and The Sixteen’s 2015 Choral Pilgrimage at Croydon Minster on 10 June 2015, the 10th stop on their 15th Choral Pilgrimage which continues around the country until 7 November 2015. Entitled Flight of Angels the programme explored music from the Spanish Golden Age with music by Francisco Guerrero and Alonso Lobo, including movements from Guerrero’s Missa Surge propera, Missa de la batalla escoutez and Missa Congratulamini mihi, and Lobo’s Missa Maria Magdalena, and Guerrero’s Duo Seraphim clamabant, Laudate Dominum, Maria Magdalene and Vexilla Regis, and Lobo’s Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna, Ave Regina caelorum, Ave Maria and Versa est in luctum.

Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599) was long-lived and associated for much of his life with Seville Cathedral. He had studied with Morales, one of the greatest Spanish composers of the early 16th century, who had himself spent 10 years in the Papal Choir in Rome. Guerrero has the unusual distinction of being one of the few composers who made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Alonso Lobo (1555 - ) assisted Guerrero at Seville Cathedral. He moved to Toledo Cathedral as as maestro de capilla, before returning to Seville as maestro de capilla there.

Guerrero’s Duo Seraphim clamabant seems to be his only 12 part motet, written for three unequal choirs. Slow unfolding with intertwining lines and dialogue between the choirs, this is gorgeous music designed for the acoustic of a large cathedral, rather than a large parish church, but the beauty of Guerrero’s music still counted.

The programme was structured around the ordinary of the mass, but taken from different settings by Lobo and Guerrero. We started with the Kyrie from Lobo's Missa Maria Magdalene, based on Guerrero's motet Maria Magdalene which finished the first half. This was rich, slow moving polyphony using six voices.The choir made a big full sound (there were 18 of them, with six sopranos and with a mixture of men and women on the alto line) in the music's spacious textures.  Lobo's Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna was more sober, and more homophonic with choral sections alternating with chant. The music was vigorous and rather more direct than the polyphony we head so far heard. The music has not survived in a version with text, and this edition was by Bruno Turner.

Guerrero's Missa Surge propera was his only six-part mass (his others were four or five part). The Gloria moved at quite a pace with lots of interlocking phrases. It was expressivity of texture which was important here, with constant changes responding to the words. Despite the singers' brave work the clarity of the text was clearly not of prime important to Guerrero, in contrast to his contemporary Palestrina.

Guerrero's motet Laudate Dominum written for two choirs (a high choir and a low choir) was notable for its rhythmic vitality, and for the way Guerrero brought in contrasts between the two choirs with the two only coming together at key moments. The first half concluded with Maria Magdalene, another six part piece, one of a very sober sort of richness with lovely sense of intersecting lines and lots of imitation, leading to a powerful climax.

Croydon Minster font
Croydon Minster font
Marooned in the post-war planning mess of Croydon town centre, Croydon Minster is well worth a visit. A Victorian re-build of a medieval church there are some fine historical monuments, and some spectacular Victorian encaustic tiles in the chancel. The church currently has an appeal to support the restoration of its historic organ (more details here).

Part two opened with the Credo from Guerrero's Missa de la batalla escoutez which is based on the chanson La Guerre by Clement Jannequin. The opening of the movement, though vigorous, used long phrases which made it rather less battle-like than expected. Following the contrasting lyrical middle section (on Qui tollis), the music became suitably battle like with lots of repeated notes on Et resurrexit. The singers gave the work lots of rhythmic vim and vigour. Guerrero's Vexilla Regis is a hymn setting which alternates chant and polyphony, and in the polyphonic verses he started with a reduced combination of voices and only use all four in the last verse. There were some highly beautiful moments here, and the choir brought out the passionate intensity of Guerrero's setting.

Lobo's Ave Regina caelorum is a five-part motet with two soprano parts. These two are in canon, supported by vigorous under parts. It was very robust, yet seductive, with a vibrant climax. Lobo's Ave Maria was another double choir work, but again did not use two equal choirs. Lobo has a clever canon between the two choirs, but you don't need to know this when listening as the results are glorious, with a lovely sense of constant movement. Versa est in luctum is perhaps Lobo's best known motet. Written for the funeral obsequies of Philip II of Spain, Lobo uses lots of imitation to create a highly melancholy mood. Harry Christophers and the singers gave the music both intensity and beauty in a very vibrant performance.

We finished with a pair of Agnus Dei settings from Guerrero's Missa Congratulamini mihi based on the motet by the Franco-Flemish composer Thomas Crecquillon. Guerrero seemed to like to keep all the vocal parts moving, but the results can have a surprisingly gentle feel, often with relatively slow harmonic movement. Guerrero upped the ante in gorgeousness by adding an extra (sixth) voice in the second Agnus Dei.

Though the music was always beautifully shaped by Harry Christophers and the Sixteen, and warmly appreciated, not every piece had the sort of vibrant intensity which I think this music needs and some movements could have rather done with a tad more temperament and sense of religious fervour. Perhaps we might say that this was a very English style performance. Throughout the concert, the choir made a big, rich sound with some very vibrant performances. This was not small scale, but the sense of control and eye for detail were still there. And the rewarding vocal textures echoing around the church befitted the music.

Harry Christophers and the Sixteen have already recorded the repertoire from this concert on their own label Coro, see my review.

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