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Reviews

30 Nov 2019

Saint Cecilia: The Sixteen at Kings Place

There were eighteen rather than sixteen singers. And, though the concert was entitled Saint Cecilia the repertoire paid homage more emphatically to Mary, Mother of Jesus, and to the spirit of Christmas.

The Sixteen at Kings Place: Saint Cecilia

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: The Sixteen

 

But, no matter. This performance by Harry Christophers’ ensemble at Kings Place was characteristically accomplished and well-composed, in terms of, respectively, the singers’ assurance (though I’m not sure why Christophers needed to employ pitch pipes between items, given the singers’ experience and the harmonic clarity and focus of the works performed) and the balance of compositional styles presented.

Britten’s ‘A Hymn to the Virgin’ (1931) opened proceedings, and here the strengths of The Sixteen were obvious: the clarity of diction; the persuasive nuance of suspension and dissonance; the give and take between phrases which creates fluency; the independence of voices where necessary which injects drama and vigour.

The programme included works by many women composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Ruth Byrchmore’s ‘Prayer of St Teresa of Avila’ was noteworthy for the way harmonic stasis and movement were opposed, creating a dynamism that flowered in rich timbral majesty. In contrast, the lines of the composer’s ‘A Birthday (St Cecilia)’ seemed at times to be swimming against each other, resulting in no less dynamic urgency. The latter climaxed in a sustained proclamation, “my love is come to me”, through which the female voices seemed to evolve from a human to an instrumental to an almost abstract timbre.

We had two works by Cecilia McDowall, ‘Now may we singen’ and ‘Of a Rose’, both of which recalled carolling traditions - and the spirit of John Rutter - in their combinations of melody and drone, and the temporal flexibility which seems to be a direct representation of linguistic veracity. Similarly, there were two works by Margaret Rizza: ‘O speculum columbe’, which sprayed its harmonic light like a fan of colour in the opening stanza, and ‘Ave generosa’ which was one of the evening’s more individual and engaging offerings, bringing together soprano and alto solos in a complementary partnership and culminating in a blaze of jubilation: “Dei Genitricem. Amen.” (Mother of God. Amen)

The programme did evince an occasional waft of ‘English gentility’: Elizabeth Poston’s ‘Jesus Christ the apple tree’ was an exquisite dose of Christmas-come-early; The Sixteen’s Kim Porter showed her choral nous in ‘Christmas Eve’, combining contrapuntal dialogue with harmonic nuance. But any sense of comfort or complacency, however beautiful, was challenged most creatively by Alissa Firsova’s ‘Stabat Mater’, which foraged through piquant harmonic landscapes and sonorities, exploiting false relation and flattened ‘blue notes’, and sculpting an architectural expanse of quiet dignity. Similarly Peter Maxwell Davies’ ‘Lullaby for Lucy’ made its mark without undue ceremony: as the text spoke of “plants and creatures of the valley” which “Unite,/ calling a new/ Young one to join the celebration”, so the music expanded organically from tenor solo to tender intertwinings, culminating in startling luminosity: “Lucy came among them, all brightness and light.”

Ironically, if there was one item that left me feeling a bit ‘bristly’ it was Britten’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia. Though the text was well articulated throughout, I longed for more rhythmic swing and suaveness at the opening, to avoid the impression of English-country-house etiquette and stiff-upper-lips. In the second section, “I cannot grow”, there was precision but not tension: the counterpoint was precise but prim. The tuning of some of the unison refrains was not entirely settled, though there was a persuasive organ-like timbre and sonority at time for the appeal, “Blessed Cecilia, appear in vision”; the pause on “Love me” at the close of this second section was distinctly troubled intonation-wise.

With the arrival of the concluding Auden poem, “O ear whose creatures cannot wish to fall”, I longed for more fluency of line: all was absolutely accurate, but, for example, the men’s stepwise lines came across as separate notes rather than a melodic sweep. And, this may be an entirely personal preference or predilection, but I found soprano solo - though powerfully sung by Julie Cooper - too empowered and vibrant: this is surely an angelic song, and if we can’t have a boy soprano then we might have a voice which approximates the abstract elevation of such? Similarly, when it came to the poetic ‘punchline’, so to speak, I felt that Jeremy Budd’s solo tenor proclamation, “O wear your tribulation like a rose”, needed greater spaciousness to take in the import of the text; and that more precise tuning of the chord supporting the fanfare-like declaration was required. This work highlighted, too, the tendency of The Sixteen to over-sing in this venue; they did not need to cast their utterances into a cathedral’s sonic void that would magnify and return and enrich; the acoustic in Hall One is excellent, the space fairly intimate. Less would have been more at times.

Most affecting of all was Herbert Howells’ ‘Take him, earth, for cherishing’, which is often said to have been commissioned following the death of John F. Kennedy, though the real dedicatee is surely Howells’ son, Michael, who died 28 years earlier from polio. The initial unison challenged; imperatives, “Guard him well”, compelled; the counterpoint was simultaneously knotty and dynamic: “Comes the hour God hath appointed/ To fulfil the hope of men:” The plea to the Lord, “O take him, mighty Leader, Take again thy servant’s soul”, was expansive and compelling. The final prayer, “Take him, earth, for cherishing.”, was quietly touching. Christophers sculpted a cathedral of sound, simultaneously gracious and fragile.

Claire Seymour

The Sixteen: Saint Cecilia
Harry Christophers (conductor)

Britten - Hymn to the Virgin, Ruth Byrchmore - Prayer of St Theresa of Avila, Britten - Hymn to Saint Cecilia, Cecilia McDowall - Now May We Singen, Margaret Rizza - O Speculum Columbe, Alissa Firsova - Stabat Mater, Howells - Take Him Earth for Cherishing, Kim Porter - Christmas Eve, Byrchmore - A Birthday (St Cecilia), McDowall - Of a Rose, Roxanna Panufnik - Prayer, Elizabeth Poston - Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, Maxwell Davies - Lullaby for Lucy, Rizza - Ave generosa.

Kings Place, London; Friday 29th November 2019.


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