“Let praises resound!” was the rallying cry of this Wigmore Hall lunchtime recital of Christmas music by The Sixteen. It’s common, these days, for vocal ensembles to juxtapose old and new, moving from the medieval to the modern and sometimes highlighting surprising symmetries and conversations. But, on this occasion The Sixteen kept their collective feet firmly in the Renaissance. Their programme, though, was characteristically well-considered and inventive, woven through with parallel threads which bound the varied items together into a coherent and satisfying whole.
As always, the ‘technical’ side of things was immaculate and the musical qualities no less splendid. But, the programme’s titular 14th-century carol, Resonemus laudibus, with its unison exchanges between high and low voices, was a challenging way to begin, showcasing the ensemble’s focused intonation. This anonymous text formed a recital refrain. Later, we heard one of several settings of the ancient hymn by Jacobus Handl, who, born in 1550, published his Opus Musicum in Prague in 1586, which contains motets for the whole ecclesiastic year. The Sixteen enjoyed Handl’s rhetorical and chromatic pointing of the words. A setting by Orlande de Lassus seemed to turn the association of the text with the custom of ‘cradle-rocking’ on Christmas Eve ironically on its head – the baby would surely not have slept sweetly! – confounding metrical expectations with juxtaposed duple and triple metres which The Sixteen exploited with exuberant energy. Their cries of “Eia, eia” (Oh joy) and “Emmanuel” were colourful and athletic.
Tributes to the Virgin Mary formed another musical strand, offering the rare and familiar. Nesciens mater virgo virum (Knowing no man, the virgin mother) by Jean Mouton (c.1459-1522) is based upon the plainsong antiphon that the narrates immaculate conception and birth of Christ. Slow and sombre, it’s a masterclass in canonic imitation – with four parts each employed for imitative purposes – and Christophers delineated the structural accomplishments brilliantly, while always pointing the wonderful, shifting harmonies that arise from the slow-moving interplay of the voices. The Eton Choirbook is the source of the setting of the same text by William Lambe (1450/1-1504). Here we heard more traditional duets and trios dance around the plainchant tenor – sometimes phrases such as “Sola virgo” were presented in varying textures – and the overall effect was one of controlled mobility. Christophers didn’t let Lambe’s harmonic details go neglected either, the flattening of “sans dolore” milked judiciously for affect. The familiar Basque carol Gabriel’s Message told of the Annunciation, it’s lilting refrain reassuring within the generally subdued delivery which conjured an apt sense of mystery.
The 400th anniversary of the death of William Byrd was marked by the fittingly dark tones of Lulla, lullaby from the 1588 Psalmes, Sonets, & songs of sadness and pietie, though Christophers brought out the energy of the polyphony – the vigour of “A king is born, they say” and the dramatic repetitions of “O woe” – which contrast with the prevailing pathos. There was more Byrd, from the Psalms, Songs, Sonnets of 1611, in the form of music for Christmas Day. The six-part motet This day Christ is born was characterised by marked imitation, with a terrific shift from duple to triple meter and a theatrical breath before the concluding, gloriously free Alleluia. Byrd’s very human engagement with the text contrasted with the theological and musical discipline of Palestrina in the Kyrie and Gloria from the Missa Hodie Christus natus est and the Mass’s related double-chorus motet, though the polyphonic perfection was no less expressive. Christophers’ delineation of the structure of the Gloria was impressive – the marking of the shifts of tone, with the appeal “Miserere nobis”, were integrated into the overall fluency of articulation. The overlapping voices in the motet were joyful, the cascades of “Noe”, honouring the Virgin Mary, ringing out like a bright carillon.
There were traditional carols, too. The narrative of the Wexford Carol was recounted with intimacy, the hushed dynamics drawing us into the field near Bethlehem where the shepherds “did keep their flocks of lambs”, and well-shaped rallentandos at stanza ends reminding us of sweet Jesus’ birth and of the tang of incense that the Kings laid at the baby Christ’s feet. There was more bright story-telling in the Sans Day Carol (They Holly and the Ivy), which was varied of tone, colour and weight, and in Herrick’s Carol: “What sweeter music can we bring,/Than a carol for to sing” – who would disagree? Certainly not any of the near-capacity audience at Wigmore Hall.
The Sixteen concluded their Christmas message with John Sheppard’s six-voice Reges Tharsis, perhaps a rather sombre close, but an impressive one in which the sopranos reached high as the basses sank low, with some indulgent false relations in between.
The Sixteen (Harry Christophers, director)
Anon – Resonemus laudibus; Palestrina – Missa Hodie Christus natus est: Kyrie; Byrd – Lulla, lullaby, my sweet little baby; Trad/Basque – Gabriel’s Message; Byrd – This day Christ was born; Jacobus Handl – Resonet in laudibus; Trad/Irish – Wexford Carol; Jean Mouton – Nesciens mater virgo virum; Palestrina – Hodie Christus natus est; Walter Lambe – Nesciens mater; Trad/English – Sans Day Carol; Orlande de Lassus – Resonet in laudibus; Palestrina – Missa Hodie Christus natus est: Gloria; Anon – Herrick’s Carol; Sheppard – Reges Tharsis
Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 18th December 2023.