Monday 11 April 2016

The Deer's Cry - The Sixteen's Choral Pilgrimage 2016

Seven statues of martyrs, sculpted by Rory Young and installed in the niches of the medieval nave screen, St Albans Cathedral
Seven statues of martyrs, sculpted by Rory Young, in
the medieval nave screen, St Albans Cathedral
The Deer's Cry music by Byrd, Tallis, Pärt; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; St Albans Cathedral
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 09 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Vibrant & rewarding - Music from the 16th and 20th centuries in The Sixteen's Choral Pilgrimage

Another year, another Choral Pilgrimage and thankfully The Sixteen's annual concert tour is anything but routine. This year is Harry Christophers and The Sixteen's 16th pilgrimage and we caught their second port of call at St Albans Cathedral on Saturday 9 April 2016. This year is The Deer's Cry taking its title from the work by Arvo Pärt in a programme which mixes music by Arvo Pärt with that of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, with Byrd's Diliges Dominum, Christ qui lux es et dies, Emendemus in melius, Miserere mihi Domine, Ad Dominum cum tribularer, O lux beata  Trinitas, Laetentur coeli and Tribue, Domine, plus Miserere nostri attributed jointly to Byrd and Tallis, alongside Pärt's The Deer's Cry, The Woman with the Alabaster Box, and Nunc Dimittis.

Both Pärt and Byrd wrote music under unsympathetic regimes (Byrd under the Tudors at the height of the persecution of Roman Catholics, Pärt in Soviet controlled Estonia). Both wrote music which fits well with the acoustic of the large ecclesiastical spaces in which The Sixteen perform the Choral Pilgrimage.

The first piece was Byrd's Diliges Dominum one of a number of works in the programme which came from Byrd and Tallis' 1575 publication Cantiones Sacrae. There was another theme linking works too, the complex mathematical games that Byrd and Tallis loved to play, games which are concealed under a beautiful surface. Diliges Dominum hid its complexity beneath the surface perfection of the performance. The use of canon and palindrome in Diliges Dominum gave it a static quality and Harry Christophers and The Sixteen turned this into a form a magic, giving a wonderfully warm reaxed account with a richness to the texture.
Byrd's Christe qui lux es et dies sets a Compline hymn and the singers gave the work a calm feel apt for such a work, with a shapely sense of line and a nice projection of the words. Arvo Pärt's The Deer's Cry sets a text attributed to St. Patrick. The long-breathed soprano lines contrasted with the precise rhythmic underpinning (with Pärt's usual striking use of uneven silence) from the lower voices. Getting gradually more complex and more intense with a steady sense of progression leading to a powerful climax. And the work ended intriguingly with no sense of completion. Byrd's Emmendemus in melius  produced a big vibrant sound from the choir, but still with a sense of clarity to the singing, and beauty of line.

Arvo Pärt's The Woman with the Alabaster Box sets a text from the Gospel of St Matthew, and clarity of the text was notable in the performance from The Sixteen, but combined with air of calmness and a relaxed yet precise placement of the rhythms. The result was highly concentrated and rather mesmerising. Byrd's Miserere mihi, Domine is one of those works where the complexity of construction is not apparent and the calm surface of the music was complemented with a sense of intensity and forward movement.

The first half concluded with Byrd's large-scale motet Ad Dominum cum tribularer. The piece had quite a dense texture, but still with clarity as the lines weaved abut each other, and an especially beautiful focus to the two soprano lines. There was a delightful profusion of false relations adding delightfully spicy detail to the large scale architectural whole.

The final work in Tallis and Byrd's Cantiones Sacrae of 1575 was Miserere nostri which is now attributed as a joint work with Tallis adding three extra voices to the existing complex four voiced canon created by Byrd. At St Albans Cathedral the work unfolded slowly with a great sense of stasis (all those canons again) but the performers clearly revelled in the gorgeous textures created and the beauty of the floated soprano lines. Thomas Tallis's Salvator Mundi also appeared in Cantiones Sacrae but the work also appeared with English words the same story as in Pärt's The Woman with the Alabaster Box and it was this version The Sixteen performed, making an apt pairing with the Pärt. It was performed by just ten singers, two two a part with the altos on the top line thus giving us a different texture from the rest of the programme. In contrast to the Pärt, Tallis's piece also had a great sense of drama. Byrd's O lux beata Trinitas, sung by the whole choir, was taken at quite a steady temp but with a really lively sense of rhythmic detail. This combined with a bright sound contributed to the sense of joy in the piece.

Arvo Pärt's Nunc Dimittis started slow and sustained, a lovely careful placement of individual notes. There was a sense of build up to the radiant climax of 'Lumen ad revelationem gentium'. The doxology was delicate and light, left hanging in a magical way. Byrd's Laetentur caeli was joyful with fabulous rhythmic detail enlivening the texture.

The final work in the programme was Byrd's substantial motet Tribue, Domine. Byrd's writing, using different groupings of voices contrasting with the large scale tutti sections, was highly similar to the votive anthems of the early Tudor period. But Byrd used far more words, with little in the way of the melisma beloved of the early Tudors. There was also a sense of drama, and a feeling of narrative through the piece. Rhythmic detail enlivened the texture, and the really vigorous climax to the second verse. There was a nice sense of the large scale architecture of the piece with a constant flow to the piece. Large scale motets like Byrd's Tribue, Domine do not crop up in concert programmes regularly so it was rewarding to hear The Sixteen's vibrant performance and know that it goes on progression round the country.

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen on disc:
The Deer's Cry
Monteverdi - Messa a quatro voci e salmi of 1650
Monteverdi - Vespers of 1610

Elsewhere on this blog:

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