sun 31/05/2020

Choral Pilgrimage 2014, The Sixteen, St John's College Chapel, Cambridge | reviews, news & interviews

Choral Pilgrimage 2014, The Sixteen, St John's College Chapel, Cambridge

Choral Pilgrimage 2014, The Sixteen, St John's College Chapel, Cambridge

Tudor polyphony at its finest

The SixteenJames Berry

The core pulse of Tudor polyphony is often deliciously slow. It gets down to a mesmeric pace of about 30 beats per minute. The listener just has to succumb to it, and the experience, even in the virtually unheated Cambridge College chapel where The Sixteen began its 2014 Choral Pilgrimage last night, was pure pleasure.

The core pulse of Tudor polyphony is often deliciously slow. It gets down to a mesmeric pace of about 30 beats per minute. The listener just has to succumb to it, and the experience, even in the virtually unheated Cambridge College chapel where The Sixteen began its 2014 Choral Pilgrimage last night, was pure pleasure.

The names of the three composers whose work form the Sixteen's programme for the concerts of this year's Pilgrimage will be unfamiliar, but Davy, Sheppard and Mundy are all important precursors of Byrd and Tallis, and the sequence of works has been meticulously prepared to constitute a very satisfying programme.

The earliest pieces are from the 1490s when Richard Davy ran the choir at Magdalen College in Oxford. There are works of sheer beauty by John Sheppard, who held the same post and was writing in the 1540s. The compositions which close each half of the concert are by William Mundy, whose career was based around Westminster Abbey, St. Pauls Cathedral and the Chapel Royal in London. His pieces from the 1550s have an overwhelming sense of architecture, and build inexorably to perfectly satisfying climaxes.

the intricate melismas over vowels are an invitation to the listener

The confidence with which The Sixteen are able to present these works stems from their deep associations with the music, referring to it in the programme notes as "returning to their grass roots". Mundy's “Vox Patris Celestis” was performed at the group's first ever concert in 1979. The associations start before that: conductor Harry Christophers and soprano Sally Dunkley, who is still at the heart of The Sixteen, were both singing the works of John Sheppard before The Sixteen started, as members of the David Wulstan's pioneering group, the Clerkes of Oxenford.

Davy inhabits a world still in thrall to plainsong. In his “O Domine Caeli”, single vowels like an "i" in "viventibus" or "retulit", or the final "a" in "maiestate" are lovingly dwelt on, caressed. The intricate melismas over vowels are an invitation to the listener just to enjoy time stretched out, fully lived.

The sound which the group makes is glorious throughout. It has been caught well on the new CD (The Voice of The Turtle Dove, CORO) which has just been issued to accompany the Choral Pilgrimage. I was able to listen to the CD before the concert, and would recommend doing that. The richness, the contrasts beween works, the variety of mood become clear from just a couple of listens. In concert one is able to see more of how each piece is put together, to become aware of the affecting transience of vocal parts entering and departing. One of the Sixteen's strengths is the security of line which remains when the texture is taken down to one voice to a part. Davy's “Ah mine heart, remember thee well”, the only work in the programme which is performed in English, with tenor Jeremy Budd, soprano Kirsty Hopkins and bass Eamon Dougan performing the solo parts, was a definite highlight.

The final sequence is spectacular. “Vox Patris Celestis” starts with just two intertwined voices. Harry Christophers (pictured above right, by Marco Borggreve) carefully calibrates the build-up of texture as each new vocal part is added. The basses enter with the words "anima mea". The words "vineae florentes" (flowering vines) are the moment when the whole range and richness of the ensemble singing are at last allowed to bloom for the first time in the piece. Scholar John Milsom posits the theory that the work may well have been performed in Mary Tudor's coronation pageant in September 1553. Whatever the facts, the piece, in The Sixteen's performance, has both the scale and the grandeur to be worthy of such an occasion.

One person sitting near me was moved at the end of the first of two settings by John Sheppard of “In Manus Tuas” to say to his companion, “That was beautiful.” It's a remark which serves as a the perfect eptihet for a stunning concert.

This 35th anniversary Choral Pilgrimage involves 33 UK concerts stretching to October. It will involve a total of 35 singers, all fully rehearsed and conversant with the programme, with each concert using a selection from that group. More details of dates are on The Sixteen's website.

In concert one is able to see more of how each piece is put together, to become aware of the affecting transience of vocal parts entering and departing

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters