Monday 16 April 2018

Sacred and Profane: The Sixteen's 2018 Choral Pilgrimage

Hieronymous Bosch - The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail)
Sacred and Profane - music by William Cornysh & Benjamin Britten; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; St Albans Cathedral
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 April 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The opening of The Sixteen's 2018 pilgrimage, pairing sacred and profane music by two English composers spanning over 400 years, William Cornysh and Benjamin Britten

The Sixteen, conductor Harry Christophers, launched their 2018 Choral Pilgrimage with a concert at St Albans Cathedral. Sacred and Profane pairs sacred and secular pieces by Benjamin Britten with music by 15th / 16th-century composer William Cornysh (there were two, both their relationship and the musical attributions are uncertain). Britten's music stretched across his career from Hymn to the Virgin written when he was a teenager to Sacred and Profane, written in 1974/75, and taking in A Hymn to St Cecilia and Advance Democracy. The music by Cornysh included two major sacred pieces, Salve Regina and Ave Maria, and three secular pieces, My Love she mourneth, Woefully Array'd and  Ah Robin, gentle Robin.

We opened with Britten's Hymn to the Virgin written when he was 17, an enormously confident and stylish work. Using a macaronic text, the main choir sang the English and the solo quartet (from the rear of the nave) sang the Latin, all giving a profoundly beautiful rendering of the music with finely shaped phrases and a lovely clarity of texture; a considered performance.

This was followed by William Cornysh's My love she mourn'th. The elder William Cornysh (who died in 1502 and who was a singer at Westminster Abbey) probably wrote the sacred pieces, notably the works like the Salve Regina from the Eton Choir Book. The younger William Cornysh (who died in 1523) was a singer with the Chapel Royal but also devised pageants, plays and other staged events. In the Fairfax Manuscript (copied in 1501) he is referred to as William Cornysh Junior, but we have little information beyond that. This is probably one of those occasions when it was so obvious to contemporaries which was which that they rarely if ever needed to write it down

My love she mourn'th proved to be an elegantly melancholy song, the English text somewhat enigmatic. Sung by a reduced group (three altos, three tenors, three basses), they created some lovely textures for this apparently simple song.

Britten's A Hymn to St Cecilia was his final collaboration with W.H. Auden, written whilst Britten was on the boat returning to the UK after his sojourn in the USA. Auden's text is also enigmatic, but multi-layered giving plenty of scope for the young Britten (he was 29 when it was premiered by the BBC Singers in 1942). The first section was nicely relaxed, with a lightly transparent texture, moving to a powerful climax. The second section was impressively fast with the sopranos enunciating their text in a quiet, light yet crisp way, all the while keeping it dancing. The final section opened full of mystery, over the steady tread of the bass line. The strange white children solo was beautifully taken, with some vivid word painting in the later solo sections.

The first half finished with the Salve Regina, by William Cornysh, from the Eton Choir Book (copied soon after 1500 but whose contents stretch back to the 1480s, and no mention of Junior against Cornysh's name). It is a very English piece, with long stretches of melisma where you lose sight of what word you are on (and a fondness for using E vowels), and a contrast between the full choir and small groups with reduced numbers of voices. There was a stately, sculptural quality to the Sixteen's performance, with a clarity of line and translucent textures despite the busyness of the sections for full choir. This is music designed for just such a resonant acoustic, where it really comes alive. There was something rather hypnotic about the melismatic repetitions in this acoustic.

The second half opened with Britten's Advance Democracy, a work from 1938 setting Randall Swingler. Britten set Swingler again in 1939 in Ballad of Heroes, Swingler's work is also known from Alan Bush's settings of his poems. Though Advance Democracy has a similar political slant to these other works, Britten's setting is far from straightforward. He initially combines the setting of the text with melisma in some of the voices and the result is much more than a marching song, subtle yet exciting.

William Cornysh's Ave Maria, mater dei was sung by just altos, tenors and basses. They achieved richly imaginative textures and a warm dark sound, combining vigour and subtlety. The full choir sang Cornysh's Woefully Arrayed, a rather austere piece notwithstanding some rich textures and its use of a religious-themed text rather reminded me of some of Byrd's three-part English pieces. The final Cornysh piece, though still melancholy, was more obviously secular, sung by just three voices, tenors Mark Dobell and Jeremy Budd, and bass Ben Davies. It was gentle, lyrical piece, with a deceptively simple melody.

The final work in the programme was Britten's Sacred and Profane. Written for the Wilbye Consort of Voices, a five-voice vocal ensemble conducted by Peter Pears which premiered the work in 1975. I have to confess that I have only ever heard performances from choirs, and it would be interesting to hear a one voice per part performance.  The work sits in Britten's final period, alongside the Suite on English Folk Tunes "A Time There Was" (1974), the Third String Quartet (1975), and the dramatic cantata Phaedra (1975). There is a sense of Britten's illness causing him to reduce the size of the works (Phaedra had originally been considered as an opera). So in Sacred and Profane, we have Britten returning to unaccompanied choral music (his previous major a cappella work being the Five Flower Songs of 1950).

But this reduction in the size of forces does not mean a reduction in complexity and Sacred and Profane is a notoriously difficult work to bring off. Britten's vocal writing, with its changing harmonies and striking textures, is tricky and overall the work's moving between moods is equally difficult. The words are not the near-English of Christmas carols but real Middle English, requiring proper translations. I noted that the Sixteen used correct period pronunciation, a sensible precaution which makes the metre and rhyme of the texts work but makes comprehension difficult!

'St Godric's Hymn' positively exploded and throughout vivid brightness alternated with subtlety, whilst there was a clarity to Britten's complex harmonic language. 'I mon waxe wod' was edgy yet dazzling, whilst there was a lyrical beauty to 'Lenten is come' which belied its complex texture. Britten makes this texture bleed into the next song, 'The long night' until blown away by the 'the blast of the wind'. Here the choir's performance was vividly descriptive. 'Yif ic of luve can' was all close harmony, creating a slightly unnerving atmosphere, which contrasted strongly with the attractively catchy 'Carol'. 'Ye that pasen by' was rather eerie, with a passionate climax, whilst the final song 'A death' was vividly performed, a terrific tour de force which a bang at the end. And, of course, you could not help pondering that Britten was thinking of his own death.

The Sixteen's next Choral Pilgrimage date is 20 April 2018 in Winchester, and the concerts run until 9 November 2018, full details from The Sixteen's website.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Light Divine: a final glimpse of treble Aksel Rykkvin (★★★½) - CD review
  • David Hare's The Moderate Soprano at the Duke of York's Theatre (★★★★)  - theatre review
  • Handel's Teseo at the London Handel Festival (★★★★) - opera review
  • Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto from Early Opera Company at London Handel Festival  (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Concrete Dreams (★★★★)  - exhibition review
  • Britten, Bernstein, Moore, Sutherland, Chagall, Piper - Walter Hussey & his commissions (★★★★)  - Book review
  • Shedding light on Claude le Jeune's psalm settings (★★★½) - CD review
  • Journey to Nidaros: Alexander Chapman Campbell (★★★) - CD review
  • Fantasies can be dangerous: Mark-Anthony Turnage's Coraline (★★★) - opera review
  • Competitive edge: Thomas Arne's The Judgement of Paris and arias from Handel's Semele  (★★★★) - opera review
  • Labour of love: a new musical direction at Finchcocks - interview
  • Spellbinding: Anna Netrebko and Željko Lucic in Verdi's Macbeth - Royal Opera House Live Cinema (★★★★) - opera review
  • From wronged women to pastoral delight: Handel's Italian cantatas at Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • Mr Handel's Vauxhall Pleasures at the London Handel Festival (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Home

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