Friday 2 July 2021

Satisfyingly concentrated: Harry Christophers & The Sixteen's The Call of Rome at Kings Place

Harry Christophers, The Sixteen - Kings Place (Photo Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)
Harry Christophers, The Sixteen - Kings Place (Photo Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)

The Call of Rome
- plainchant, Josquin, Anerio, Victoria, Allegri; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Kings Place

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 July 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
This year's Choral Pilgrimage reaches Kings Place with very satisfying programme of music by composers working in Rome

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen's 2021 Choral Pilgrimage features a programme entitled The Call of Rome with music by four composers who worked in Rome, particularly with the Papal Choir, Josquin Desprez (1450/55-1521), Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), Felice Anerio (1560-1614) and Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652), and I caught up with them at Kings Place on Thursday 1 July 2021. The choir is presenting two versions of the programme, for the Summer concerts in June and July there is one lasting an hour whilst during the Autumn they will be performing a longer version.

Both programmes explore music written for the Papal Choir or music in the Papal Choir's library. We heard three of the Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday by Victoria who worked in Rome for 20 years but was not a member of the Papal Choir, though an early version of the music is held by the Papal Choir's Library. Josquin was a member of the choir for five years, and we heard his motets Gaude virgo mater Christ and Illibata Dei virgo. Felice Anerio trained as a choir boy at St Peter's Basilica under Palestrina, before going on to take Palestrina's place as composer to the Papal Choir after Palestrina died. We heard his motet Regina caeli laetare a8

Harry Christophers, The Sixteen - Kings Place (Photo Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)
Harry Christophers, The Sixteen - Kings Place (Photo Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)

The final composer was Gregorio Allegri, who worked with the Papal Choir for 23 years and whose Miserere was a great feature of the Holy Week celebrations. Except, as the extensive programme notes explained, what made the Miserere exceptional was not so much Allegri's music as the ornamentation, the abellimenti, that the singers brought to it. So we heard the version of the Miserere created by Harry Christophers and Ben Byram-Wigfield which, in each ornamented verse, moves from the earliest known manuscript right through to the 20th century version with the top C which is in fact a mistake in transcription! To bring things up to date for this tour, Christophers had commissioned Roxanna Panufnik, Gabriel Jackson and Bob Chilcott to write their own ornamentations. We heard the version by Bob Chilcott who, it turns out, was a boy treble at Kings College, Cambridge where he did indeed sing that top C.

As Holy Week was very much the focus of the concert we began with the Lamentations, the plainchant sequence De Lamentatione, affectingly sung by the choir (tenors and basses the psalm text, sopranos and counter-tenors the Hebrew letters). This was followed by three of Victoria's Tenebrae Responsories, 'Recessit pastor noster', 'O vos omnes' and 'Sepulto Domino'. Beautifully considered performances with a lovely intimate feel (just ten singers instead of the usual 18, middle sections sung by solo quartet or trio), 'O vos omnes' was very touching and 'Sepulto Domino' almost edge of the seat stuff.

Next came Josquin's Gaude virgo mater Christi whose music was surprisingly infectious, with a lovely jazzy snap to the rhythms. Then we heard the Gloria’ from Allegri's Missa In lectulo meo, a welcome chance to hear some music by Allegri that wasn't the Miserere. Written for two choirs in dialogue, the work was mainly homophonic yet enlivened with little rhythmic flourishes and creating some wonderfully rich harmonies. The result was surprisingly considered yet full of interest with startlingly clear words, clearly a priority at the time. Felice Anerio's Regia caeli laetare was also for double choir, a lively work where the two choirs really sparked off each other and Anerio uses the 'Alleluia' sections to bring brilliance to the music.

Harry Christophers, The Sixteen - Kings Place (Photo Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)
Allegri: Miserere - Harry Christophers, The Sixteen - Kings Place (Photo Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)

With limited space available and just ten singers (though with some moving around of personnel) Allegri's Miserere was performed with one choir behind the other. A beautifully poised performance with Christophers speed feeling quite natural, allowing plenty of space for the ornamentation. This was focussed on the first soprano who effortlessly seemed to allow the varied ornaments to spring from the music. It is still a shock to hear the ornamented verse performed properly, with no top C, the moment when the soprano does not jump up a fifth is striking. Here we could listen to the evolution of the ornaments, with a finely focussed and seemingly effortless top C, and then finally Bob Chilcott's rather different and very imaginative reworking. Of course, the performance is not just about the first soprano, everyone else drew together to create a memorable occasion.

Josquin's hugely imaginative Illibata Dei virgo came next, with its text which includes the composer's name as an acrostic! Though writen for eight voices, Josquin makes use of interesting smaller groupings of voices and like Thomas Tallis, Josquin was adept at creating complex music which sounds effortless. This was a terrific performance of a wonderful piece. Finally, Victoria's Salve Regina a8, which uses two unequal choir (SSAB, SATB) to striking effect and gives each choir long sections on their own so that the sense of dialogue being sparked only comes towards the end. Yet the moments when he brings the two choirs together were glorious, and of course a wonderfully triumphant ending.

Harry Christophers, The Sixteen - Kings Place (Photo Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)
Harry Christophers, The Sixteen - Kings Place (Photo Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)

Whilst I missed having the extra music from the longer version of this programme, there was something rather satisfying about this varied yet concentrated and finely thought-out hour of music. Kings Place is not the sort of acoustic that you get in the great cathedrals and churches that The Sixteen uses on its Choral Pilgrimages, but Christophers and his ten singers used the hall to great effect to make this a more intimate experience.

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