Friday 8 September 2017

Palestrina and Poulenc: The Sixteen's Choral Pilgrimage

St James's Spanish Place
St James's Spanish Place
Poulenc, Palestrina; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; St James's Spanish Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 6 2017
Star rating: 4.5

The Sixteen brings care and expressivity to two contrasting composers

For its Choral Pilgrimage this year The Sixteen, artistic director Harry Christophers, is performing a programme of Palestrina and Poulenc. We caught up with them at the Roman Catholic church of St James's, Spanish Place, on 6 September 2017. Whilst the church, built 1890, has no direct connection with either Palestrina or Poulenc, it was built for the celebration of exactly the rite for which both Poulenc and Palestrina wrote their music.

Conducted by Harry Christophers, we heard the choir performing Palestrina's motets, Surge amica mea, Parce mihi Domine, Surgam et circuibo civitatem, Peccantem me quotidie, Salve Regina and movements from Palestrina's Missa L'Homme Arme, Poulenc's Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence, Salve Regina, Un soir de neige and the 'Agnus Dei' from his Mass in G.

We started with an effortless and carefully shaped account of Poulenc's Salve Regina, as with all the other Poulenc in the programme all the tricky corners simply floated passed with apparent ease.

Next followed a group of Palestrina motets. First Surge amica mea setting words from the Song of Songs, which started with a motif rushing up through the parts on the word 'Surge' (arise), and throughout the texture was enlivened by the singers attention to articulation and to the text. By contrast, Parce mihi Domine had a sense of calm, unfolding line, creating something dignified and moving where the way the voices slipped in and out of the texture added interest. Finally in this group Palestrina's Surgam et cricuibo civitatem, again with a distinctive figure on 'Surgam' (I will arise), this time creating a lively and engaging piece.

Poulenc's Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence were written in 1938-1939 and their restless and unsettling atmosphere, with quick changes of metre and emotional style, may reflect Poulenc's response to the political turmoil of the period. 'Timor et tremor' started strongly and trenchantly. The singers brought clarity to the harmony with the spicy bits contrasting with the warmer moments. 'Vinea mea electa' had a lovely undulating quality to the opening phrases, and the singers reacted finely to the way the music really turns on a pin. 'Tenebrae factae sunt' was intimate and dark, with some terrific meaty passages and moments of great beauty, this was perhaps the most profound of the four motets and made you wish the light levels could have been lower. A poised soprano solo opened 'Tristis est anima mea' with the choir reflecting the same beauty of tone, and then suddenly all the vivid energy and vibrant edge of the crowd jeering Christ.

We finished the first half with Palestrina's Peccantem me quotidie which had a lovely natural feel to the flow of the music, yet was sung quite vibrantly with a richness of tone which did not compromise the clarity of the polyphony.

The second half started with the first verse of the 15th century song L'Homme Arme which led straight into Palestrina's mass based on the same theme (published in 1570), with the choir singing the 'Kyrie' and 'Gloria'. The choirs burnished tone in the 'Kyrie' and the way the lines flowed easily reflected the beauties of the work's construction whilst the 'Christe' contrasted the long cantus firmus with more pointed articulation in other lines. The music seemed to flow effortlessly through the text of the 'Gloria', but each new idea was carefully pointed and contrasted. The flow seemed to finally hesitate at the 'Qui tollis' before a gradual sense of build-up to the end.

Poulenc's Un soir de neige is not a sacred work, but written in Occupied Paris during the Second World War the piece has a concision and concentrated intensity which is akin to some of Poulenc's sacred writing. 'De grandes cuiller de neiges' showed off the choir's highly expressive control of music, text and texture, moving from a strong unison to transparently scored three-part writing to rich full choir. The simplicity of much of the texture of 'La bonne neige' was apparent, but created a real feeling of profundity. A short, beautiful and intense piece. 'Bois meurtri' used widely spaced chords to great effect; despite the beauty of the music, the singers brought out the intense bleakness of the words. Finally 'La nuit le froid la solitude' which started almost up beat, before really twisting the knife.

Next came a further movement from Palestrina's Missa L'Homme Arme, the 'Credo' with a steady and robust declamation of the textual profession of faith. The music seemed to stride through the substantial text, with only pauses for reflection, until the 'Et incarnatus est' which was slower and more intense, and the 'Crucifixus' reduced effectively down to a few voices before the lively 'Et resurrexit' and an amazing dancing 'Et in Spiritum Sanctum'.

A movement from Poulenc's Mass in G followed, the austere, almost mystical 'Agnus Dei'. A radiant and vibrant soprano solo started us off, followed by an expressive unison from the choir. It is a long time before Poulenc brings in real harmony, making it count. Finally we heard Palestrina's Salve Regina,a rich and rewarding piece setting the same text as Poulenc's motet which opened the concert.

Lovely though the 'Agnus Dei' was, I would have liked to hear more from the Poulenc mass, and including the 'Credo' from Palestrina's mass seemed an unusual decision and it was a pity we could not hear the 'Agnus Dei' from that mass as Palestrina tended to reserve something really special for the final 'Agnus Dei' of a mass. The pairing of Palestrina and Poulenc worked well, the two having great contrasting senses of texture but both interested in rendering the sacred texts with the right intensity, especially in performances as beautifully shaped and expressive as these.

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