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S & H Concert Review

A Choral Pilgrimage:‘Earthly Powers, Eternal Harmony’, The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers, Southwark Cathedral, London, 10 October 2002 (MA)

and then

Lincoln Cathedral (11 October)
Ely Cathedral (12 October)
Durham Cathedral (18 October)
York Minster (19 October)
St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh (22 November)
Winchester Cathedral (22 February 2003)
Norwich Cathedral (28 February)
St Alban’s Cathedral (1 March)
Christ Church, Oxford (8 March)
Lichfield Cathedral (14 March)
Chester Cathedral (15 March)
Wells Cathedral (21 March)
Christchurch Priory, Dorset (10 May)
Exeter Cathedral (15 May)
Gloucester Cathedral (16 May)
Paisley Abbey (20 June)

The Sixteen’s website is at: http://www.the-sixteen.org.uk/

I try not to overwrite, but I fear this review will be soggy with superlatives: I have rarely experienced such concentrated beauty, and spent much of this concert with tears rolling down my cheeks. The programme – labelled with one of those catchy titles that seems de rigueur in the marketing of classical music these days – was (is, for it now tours Britain until next summer) built on the music of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, with a representative from the mid-seventeenth and another from the present day.

The concert began with the plainchant antiphon Dum sacrum mysterium, sung by a group of male voices from The Sixteen, simulating a processional of monks, as they advanced from the back of Southwark Cathedral to join their colleagues already assembled at the front of the nave, and launching into the Credo of the ten-part Mass Dum sacrum mysterium by one of the greatest composers these isles have ever produced, the Scotsman Robert Carver (c. 1487–1566). And the ten-part Mass is perhaps his most sheerly beautiful work: when the choral texture finally opens out into all ten voices, it is – for me, at least – convulsively moving; one of the very few moments to equal it in all music is the a cappella outburst ‘Quando corpus morietur’ from the last movement of Dvorák’s Stabat Mater.

What followed was a bit of historical necessity. I’m no determinist, but it has always seemed that the destruction of the jewelled complexities of early sixteenth-century Scottish culture by the hair-shirt barbarities of the Reformation has left us with unfinished business. Scotland regards its leading contemporary composer, James Macmillan – an outspoken Catholic – with the same kind of uneasy, even guilty, pride as it views its past, so the fact that Macmillan should have been commissioned to write a piece to accompany Carver on this tour of Britain’s cathedrals seemed an acknowledgement of those lost riches. Macmillan’s motet uses the text of Carver’s nineteen-part motet O bone Jesu, returning like Carver to choral exclamations of ‘Jesu’, anchored on the same two notes, different harmonised on each occasion, but taking on increasing urgency each time – twenty in all, each like a pillar of faith among the complexities of his textures, the last chord not resolved but left hanging in space, as if Macmillan the believer was leaving room for doubt.

After Carver and Macmillan the sweeping certainties of Robert Ramsey (d. 1644) brought relief, the last of these three motets – In monte Oliveti, O vos omnes and How are the might fall’n – sounding an epitaph for the composers of the preceding two centuries and the world they had decorated.

One of the greatest of them was William Cornysh (d. 1502), whose Salve Regina and Ave Maria, Mater Dei opened the second half of the evening. Cornysh had an extraordinary ability to hold develop apparently weightless slabs of music which hurtle through the air on swooping soprano lines – he husbands his energies on the long-term scale of the symphonist. His music is not only profoundly beautiful: it’s also thrilling.

The programme ended with Carver’s O bone Jesu, one of the triumphs of the Renaissance mind. Carver’s extraordinary textures – his nineteen voices include nine bass parts – give the piece simultaneously a granitic solidity and an intricacy to match any of Fabergé’s eggs. It’s not an easy piece to bring off – some of Carver’s transitions drop to one or two exposed voices, in tricky rhythms – and on this occasion not all of them worked as seamlessly as they should. But the piece will soon be sung in, and before The Sixteen are far into their tour, it should be flawless.

The performances were phenomenal. All the creakings of passing trains and the rumblings of the tube deep beneath the Cathedral couldn’t disturb the intensity of the atmosphere. If you’re within striking distance of any of the cathedrals listed above, make every effort to hear this programme. If not, take solace from the fact that it has already been released on The Sixteen’s own label, Coro.

Martin Anderson

Coro, The Sixteen’s own CD label can be visited here:
http://www.the-sixteen.org.uk/ecommerce/pages/

You can listen to excerpts from The Sixteen’s CDs by visiting Ludwigvanweb:
http://www.ludwigvanweb.com/navigation/1,1270,5-1,00.html

All Ludwig discs are Post and packaging-free wherever you live.

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