21 Sep 2020

The Sixteen: Music for Reflection, live from Kings Place

For this week’s Live from London vocal recital we moved from the home of VOCES8, St Anne and St Agnes in the City of London, to Kings Place, where The Sixteen - who have been associate artists at the venue for some time - presented a programme of music and words bound together by the theme of ‘reflection’.

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 Tomás 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.

Tomás 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 Condé 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 Pärt was interspersed between the earlier compositions. VOCES8 themselves performed Pärt’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.

Pärt’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 Pärt - 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 (bass)

F. Anerio - Litaniae Beatissimae Virginis Mariae; Arvo Pärt -The Deer’s Cry, T.S. Eliot - ‘Here let us stand’ fromMurder in the Cathedral, Josquin des Prez - O Virgo prudentissima, Arvo Pärt - 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 Pärt - Morning Star, T.S. Eliot - ‘We praise Thee, O God’ (Murder in the Cathedral), Tomás Luis de Victoria - Litaniae Beatae Mariae

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