Choral Perfection from The Sixteen at York Early Music Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Josquin, Brumel, Lassus: The Sixteen, Harry Christophers. The Minster, York, 6.7.2012 (JL)

Josquin: Praeter rerum seriem
Brumel: Gloria from Missa Et ecce terraemotus
Josquin: O Virgo prudentissima
Lassus: Magnificat super Praeter rerum seriem
Lassus: Aurora lucis rutilat
Josquin: Huc me sydereo
Lassus: Timor et tremor
Brumel: Sanctus from Missa Et ecce terraemotus
Lassus: Magnificat VII Toni super Aurora lucis rutilat

Josquin (c.1450 – 1521), Brumel (1460 – 1512) and the later Lassus (c.1532 – 1594) sang in and composed for large ecclesiastical interiors – Josquin and Lassus at Milan and Rome among other places, and Brumel at the very large Notre Dame cathedrals at Chartres and Paris. We can assume their music was tailor-made for such reverberant acoustics and so York Minster was a particularly fitting setting for The Sixteen’s celebration of their art. At the time the music was composed, the Minster was probably the largest church in Christendom until overtaken by the mighty St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In fact Lassus, who worked at the church of St John in Rome in the 1550s would have observed the massive building works of St Peter’s up the road. The dome was finally completed just before Lassus’ death, over 40 years after Michelangelo had designed it.

As soon as the singers embarked upon the opening Josquin motet the audience that packed the Minster’s giant nave was able to appreciate the appropriateness of the setting. A Minster dignitary had just made some pre-concert welcoming announcements that included instructions for evacuating the building in an emergency, perhaps prompting some unwelcome memories of the huge fire that engulfed the south transept in 1984. The man’s words, in spite of amplification, were difficult to catch in the echoing acoustic. As soon as the sung words of The Sixteen filled the space it was obvious that this was the kind of building for which the music was designed. As the sound ebbed and flowed it seemed to match the soaring pillars that led both eye and sound heavenwards towards the awesome height of the roof.

The Josquin Motet, Praeter rerum, is a complex work in six parts that contemplates the mystery of the Immaculate Conception reflecting the fact that Josquin was one of the leading composers who were paying more attention to expressing the words of texts than previous generations. The Sixteen’s programme of unaccompanied sacred works reflected this throughout. In this first piece Josquin starts with the lower men’s voices that seem to emerge from some deep, mysterious realm and then, although the music gradually swells and rises in pitch, he maintains a mood of mystical restraint.

Following that, we had the first of two extracts from a remarkable mass by Brumel. In its entirety this would have been by far the most substantial item on the programme, not only in length but in textural complexity, being the only music in twelve parts (meaning that the Sixteen did not have enough performers for there to be two singers per part). Again, the music of the Gloria started with restraint and gradually built up. Half way through, at the words “Son of the Father, You take away the sins of the world”, there is a radical change of pace and texture designed to illustrate the words, after which there comes increasing agitation towards a climax culminating in a glorious “Amen” that briefly and gently continued to reverberate around the cathedral vaults after the close.

Orlande de Lassus knew the music of Brumel and Josquin well even though he was writing two or three generations later. His Magnificat which ended the first half is a tribute to Josquin in the sense that it reworks some of the material from the motet that opened the concert (a handy bit of programming). His piece Timor et Tremor in the second half conveys fear, trembling and darkness, and the pleading of “hear my prayer”, had illustrative music of astonishing chromatic harmony that would not have been possible in an earlier age. The style is drawn from the secular world of the madrigal. Members of the audience who have sung in choirs must have marvelled how The Sixteen stayed in tune in music that the programme note described as “stomach churning”.

The Sixteen, under director Harry Christophers, is one of the world’s leading exponents of Renaissance choral music and some may have seen them perform throughout the recent British television series “Sacred Music”. The singers’ perfection of ensemble and intonation could surely not be bettered. More than that, Harry Christophers conducts them in performances of such expressiveness that music from hundreds of years ago comes alive. The effect was greatly enhanced on this occasion by a spacious sacred setting that helped recreate a sound that would have been familiar to the men who wrote the music all that time ago.

John Leeman