The Sixteen: Music for Reflection, live from Kings Place

This was The Sixteen’s first performance before a live audience since
lockdown shut down musical life back in March, and the music of some of the
composers dating from the late-15the century to the early-17th
century included in their Kings Place programme had originally been
prepared for the group’s twentieth annual Choral Pilgrimage tour, which was
curtailed earlier this year. The programme for the 2020 Pilgrimage was to
focus on Rome and to include music by Josquin des Prez, Felice Anerio and
Tom·s Luis de Victoria, among others, some of the selected compositions
having previously been recorded by the ensemble on

The Call of Rome


Thus, litanies by Anerio and Victoria framed the musical offerings at Kings
Place. Felice Anerio was born in Rome, studied under Palestrina as a
chorister in the Vatican’s Cappella, and succeeded him as composer to the
papal choir. Safety restrictions may have turned the usual (and
paradoxically) eighteen-strong The Sixteen into a ten-voice ensemble but,
curving in two half-rings across the Kings Place platform, they had no
difficult in establishing the expansive glories of Anerio’s double-choir
setting of the Litaniae Beatissimae Virginis Mariae. The textures
are varied and Christophers used dynamic contrasts to enhance them further.
The momentary intimacy of two sopranos pleading with the “Regina angelorum”
to pray for mankind flowed naturally into the vibrant invocatory litanies
of the full-throated choir. Rhythms were agile and, though the text is
characteristically repetitive, there was never any sense of the formulaic.

Tom·s Luis de Victoria was maestro di cappella at the Jesuit
seminary in Rome. His setting of the Litaniae Beatae Mariae is
grand, built upon the sorts of contrasts that Christophers relishes – not
just of musical elements such as dynamics and texture, but also of states
of mind, ecstasy being juxtaposed with calm reflection. Despite the density
of the double-choir material, The Sixteen sounded lucid, airy and flowing.

Josquin des Prez’s six-part motet, O virgo prudentissima, which
sets words by the classical scholar and poet Poliziano, was tremendously
spacious, the bass probing downwards with a lovely dark grain, the sopranos
stretching upwards with shining vigour. The reduced number of voices seemed
to create more brightness and majesty, not less. The central canon for alto
and tenor created a momentary pause for the counterpoint to rest, only for
the music to regather with refreshed energy, pushing towards the final
Alleluia. In his will, Josquin asked for his two motets, Pater noster and Ave Maria, to be performed in the market
square, in front of his CondÈ home, whenever church services included an
outdoor procession. The Sixteen paid homage with warmth, gentleness and
affectionate sincerity.

As seems almost obligatory now in programmes of Renaissance vocal music –
though this makes it no less welcome – the music of Arvo P‰rt was
interspersed between the earlier compositions. VOCES8 themselves performed
P‰rt’s The Deer’s Cry in the first concert of the Live from London series, back at the start of August, a programme
based on their latest disc,

After Silence

The fifth-century text presents the prayer spoken by Ireland’s patron
saint, St Patrick, as he led his fellow monks to safety, following an
ambush. The choral tone at the start was hushed but heavily fraught with
tension; the fragmentary repetitions – “Christ with me”, “Christ in me” –
pulsed like heart-beats, held together across the palpable silences by St
Patrick’s faith. Christophers pushed the silences as far as they would go,
until they were filled by the higher soprano voices, the latter building
and then exploding in fervour before all subsided into the quiet certainty
of belief.

P‰rt’s Da pacem Domine was commissioned by the Catalan
conductor Jordi Savall for a concert dedicated to peace and written two
days after the Madrid train bombings in March 2004 as a tribute to those
who died. Here its colour-tones spread like glowing carillons around Kings
Place’s Hall One, the ringing voices bouncing off one another in gleaming
patterns. Christophers’ judicious pacing created a fluid, purposeful
momentum for the shifting and evolving colours. I was put in mind of a
paint-laden artist’s brush dropping its load into clear water, and the
paints blending while retaining their own vibrant identity. We heard the
composer’s Morning Song when

The Gesualdo Six

sang ‘live from London’ a few weeks ago. The use of higher female voices –
as scored by P‰rt – gave The Sixteen’s rendition a sense of greater
hopefulness and buoyancy, though the slower tempo adopted by Christophers
seemed to make the rhythm animation more restrained.

There was an English voice to counter the continental masterpieces. The
first of the two Libera nos settings composed by John Sheppard
reminded us that England had its golden age of polyphony too. To return to
the painterly imagery, here a wide, laden brush, slowly smeared its indigo
and verdigris, its gold and lapis lazuli, as a light streamed in through a
high church window onto the canvas.

To complement the choral songs, choral poetry was placed within the folds
of the vocal programme. As Christophers explained, in a recorded interview
with VOCES8’s Artistic Director Barnaby Smith, 2020 is the 850th
anniversary of the death of Thomas Beckett, in Canterbury Cathedral where
Christophers was himself a chorister. Three of the plays Choruses for the
women of Canterbury were recited by Christophers’ daughter, Antonia. It was
a pity that during the opening lines of the recitations, “Here let us stand
by the cathedral, here let us wait” and “Does the bird sing in the South?”,
the camera was focused on Christophers, with the be-masked audience in the
auditorium behind, because when the lens was turned to Antonia Christophers
herself it was clear that her presentational impact was as compelling as
her vivid vocal presence. (It was a pity, too, that the microphone picked
up some muttering from the auditorium.) Holding the text but speaking
predominantly from memory, she made us feel the import of the people’s
‘waiting’ – for Advent, for the renewal of spring, for the destiny that
“waits in the hands of God.”

The reception offered by the audience at Kings Place evinced huge warmth
and gratitude. They were thanked in turn with an encore sung by four
members of The Sixteen, the Agnus Dei from Byrd’s Mass for Four
Voices. After the accumulating intensity of the vocal conversations, the
movement subsided into wonderfully delicate reflective introspection.

As Eliot wonders, what is there for the people to do? “Only to wait and to
witness,” proclaim the women of Canterbury. Apt words, it feels, at this
present time.

Stilo Antico perform the next concert in this
Live From London
series, on Saturday 26th September.

Claire Seymour

The Sixteen: Harry Christophers (conductor); Antonia Christophers
(narrator); Julie Cooper, Katy Hill, Alexandra Kidgell & Charlotte
Mobbs (soprano); Daniel Collins, Edward McMullan & Kim Porter (alto);
Jeremy Budd & Mark Dobell (tenor); Ben Davies & Rob Macdonald

F. Anerio – Litaniae Beatissimae Virginis Mariae; Arvo P‰rt –The Deer’s Cry, T.S. Eliot – ‘Here let us stand’ fromMurder in the Cathedral, Josquin des Prez – O Virgo prudentissima, Arvo P‰rt – Da pacem Domine, T.S.
Eliot – ‘Does the bird sing in the South?’ (Murder in the Cathedral), John Sheppard –Libera nos I, Josquin des Prez – Pater noster / Ave Maria, Arvo P‰rt – Morning Star, T.S. Eliot – ‘We
praise Thee, O God’ (Murder in the Cathedral), Tom·s Luis de
Victoria – Litaniae Beatae Mariae

Live From London
, Live from Kings Place, London; Saturday 19th
September 2020.

product_title=The Sixteen, Live from LondonReflections
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: The Sixteen