In today’s increasingly secular society where rural churches are now no longer obliged to hold a weekly service, musical settings of devotional texts can create spiritual balm for many listeners. Paradoxically, texts expressing grief are often paralleled with music of spine-tingling beauty. At St Martin-in-the-Fields, this contradiction was strikingly conveyed in The Sixteen’s Lenten programme, A Mother’s Sorrow, where musical settings mostly associated with Holy Week were drawn from sacred music belonging to the 16th and 20th centuries and the present day. This ‘shaking hands’ across the time frame provided an opportunity to appreciate the new within the context of the old.
This was tellingly revealed in two settings of the Stabat Mater, one by the Italian Renaissance composer Felice Anerio, the other by the contemporary British-Russian composer Alissa Firsova. Anerio’s polychoral setting, once misattributed to Palestrina, is conceived for three choirs of four voices. In this performance two groups of singers were placed in opposite galleries overlooking a third centrally sited group. Vocal exchanges predominated in a flowing account where individual timbres and ever-changing sonorities caught the ear. Buoyant rhythms seemed to create some relief from the grief-stricken text, and by the end the glories of paradise were vividly captured when sopranos soared above the stave in a passage of intense luminosity. By contrast, austere harmonies occasionally coloured Firsova’s absorbing setting of the Stabat Mater (her version from 2014), its rhythmic impetus and shifting sonorities providing forward momentum and considerable transparency to its expressive journey. From bleak evocation to radiant contemplation, Firsova has produced a fine addition to numerous settings of this 13th-century hymn to Mary.
Between those works, there were offerings from John Sheppard, In manus tuas III, and Robert White’s Lamentations a 5, stylishly given by The Sixteen with their customary attention to detail to produce persuasively eloquent performances, both intimate and searingly powerful. White’s setting of this metaphorical text (drawn from the Old Testament Lamentations of Jeremiah) was heard to advantage, most notably the wonderful elaboration of the Hebrew letters beginning each Lamentation, a musical embellishment not dissimilar to that of an illuminated initial of a medieval manuscript. Every phrase was cherished with warm expressive tone, and its carefully judged dynamic shading made clear Harry Christopher’s dedication to this sumptuous music.
Similarly treasured were the superbly balanced antiphonal exchanges within Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Litaniae Beatae Mariae. Known also as the Litany of Loreto, Victoria sets this petition for atonement for two choirs, each supplication overlapping in four-part homophonic blocks of sound. It would be difficult to consider a more polished performance than given here, where immaculate blend, ensemble and tuning ravished the ear.
These last attributes defined the performance of Francis Poulenc’s harmonically rich Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence conceived during the late 1930s. Harry Christophers invested each portrayal of Christ’s crucifixion with a dramatic intensity that showcased The Sixteen’s collective brilliance. Indeed, never have I heard these works so brilliantly sung, those awkward intervals that can so often confound choirs and the abrupt exposed passages where singers can so easily go off course were all handled with effortless ease. From the declamatory opening of ‘Timor et Tremor’ it was clear these were going to be performances of real distinction, each motet underpinned by rhythmic and tonal precision allied to a wealth of emotional expression, the latter helped by Christopher’s expansive communication where his gestures would periodically electrify a chord or a shattering climax.
Like Poulenc, James MacMillan’s music reflects his deep Catholic faith, one happily not prompted, as in Poulenc’s case, by the tragic death of a friend. His Miserere (written for The Sixteen and first performed at the Flanders Festival in 2009) imaginatively deploys choral textures that recall the polychoral masters of the Baroque (most obviously Allegri) and Gregorian chant, both shrouded here in an incense-laden atmosphere that has made this one of MacMillan’s most powerful works. The Sixteen were natural executors for the music’s confessional mood. Blend and intonation were impeccable, and the final cadence, a moment of pure catharsis, was magically achieved. The arrival of the final reassuring E major chord concluded a stunning programme that unquestionably demonstrated the dazzling virtuosity of The Sixteen. Breath-taking!
The Sixteen, Harry Christophers (director)
Plainsong – De Lamentatione; Alissa Firsova – Stabat Mater; John Sheppard – In manus tuas III; Robert White – Lamentations a5; Felice Anerio – Stabat Mater; Francis Poulenc – Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence; Tomás Luis de Victoria – Litaniae Beatae Mariae; James MacMillan – Miserere
St Martin-in-the-Fields, London; Tuesday 4th April 2023.