Tonal Consistency and Balance from The Sixteen

United KingdomUnited Kingdom The Sixteen / Harry Christophers (conductor). Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, 22.3.2014 (CR)

 John Sheppard Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria
William Mundy Adolescentulus sum ego 
Richard Davy O Domine caeli terraeque      
Sheppard Libera nos I and II
In manus tuas I                                             
Davy Ah, mine heart, remember thee well
Sheppard In manus tuas III                    
Mundy Vox patris caelestis

This was The Sixteen’s second outing in their Choral Pilgrimage for 2014, the first having been at Cambridge the day before. In musical terms, though, this represented a homecoming to Oxford, as two of the composers were connected with Magdalen College: Richard Davy and John Sheppard both held the post of Informator Choristarum (choirmaster) there. In many ways the vibrant acoustic of that College’s Chapel would have enabled this music to blossom much better than the notoriously obstructive one of Christ Church Cathedral, but the latter accommodates a larger audience. Even so, those who will have the chance to hear this programme of music in the soaring naves of Truro, Lincoln or Winchester Cathedrals for example (to name a few of the locations to be visited during The Sixteen’s tour) are in for a treat.

Sheppard’s reputation has been in the ascendant in recent years, not only through The Sixteen’s advocacy, but also in the promotion of his masterpiece, the long antiphon Media Vita, by The Tallis Scholars and Stile Antico too. Sheppard was given the opening word here with his Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria. Impetus in this six-part motet came from the rhythmic bounce imparted to the striking descending fourths of the opening plainsong incipit and the increasingly frequent irruptions of plainsong phrases thereafter, working up the structure excitedly to the concluding “Gloria Patri”. The plangent, yearning tone of Mundy’s Adolescentulus sum ego brought palpable contrast with the falling arpeggio of its opening imitative lines, and the repeated dominant note in the triad (to use the terminology of later, Classical harmony) ringing through the accumulating textures.

Davy’s O Domine caeli terraeque – preserved in the Eton Choirbook – is a work of extended musical architecture. Harry Christophers delineated clear sections in the piece, as though taking in the different parts of a cathedral in turn, from nave, transepts, to presbytery. More dynamic and tonal contrast between the sections might well have helped to develop more tension across the large span, though a sense of the monumental, perhaps even the sublime, arose nonetheless. Shifting textures served for variety instead: for instance, Davy pares the scoring down to just the lower parts for the couplet starting “Deum verum et unum”, interwoven in a manner which harks back to mediaeval hocket. The men’s singing here sounded somewhat more like grunting, but another reduction to the lower parts at “Nobis tuis famulis” was more lucid. In between came a rather decorous trio for two sopranos and tenor on “O Maria mundi decus”.

At the beginning of the second half, The Sixteen ran Sheppard’s two settings of Libera nos together. A slightly rusty start from the bass’s plainsong introduction did not hamper the music’s opening out, with the expansive first setting of the words “Libera nos, salva nos, iustifica nos, O beata Trinitas” realised as one sweeping arch of sound and underpinned by a solid cantus firmus from the basses. After the intervening plainsong, the choir delivered the recapitulation of the opening words in Sheppard’s different musical setting with greater calm and reflection. Christophers instilled tenderness and intimacy into the first setting of In manus tuas (already a favourite with choirs) though the delicately twitching little melismas in the melody were a touch wobbly.

Davy’s Ah, mine heart, remember thee well – the only item on the programme in English – seems to be a private devotional work, scored only for three voices. The solo refrain was sung by a tenor with relative flexibility and charm like a folksong. However, the emphasis on certain syllables was taken up by the other voices in the verses, and perhaps rather jarred in sounding like the sort of mannerist effect which might be better suited to the songs of Purcell, for instance. The soprano’s use of vibrato on “I cry God mercy, I will amend” stood out with better expressive sense. The men of The Sixteen returned to a generally serene expression for Sheppard’s third setting of In manus tuas, as for the first, providing the sonic backdrop over which the false relations of the top part against the lower harmonies were deliciously exploited.

In Mundy’s extensive Vox patris caelestis, setting words from the Song of Songs, The Sixteen traversed an array of emotions, building up to a great, climactic web of sound in the final section with the choir’s imploring command “Veni, veni, veni”. Christophers drew the vocal strands together like chamber music at the outset, with a comparatively brisk tempo, befitting the amorous words of the text. Likewise, the seamless cohesion of the choral singing must also have been a deliberate response to the poetry’s sensuous images, the sopranos’ melodies in particular often given the impression of silk in sound. Differing combinations of female and male voices created the sense of a musical dialogue with corresponding vocal qualities, establishing a better sense of drama than in O Domine caeli terraeque earlier on, and providing a stirring climax to the concert.

In some of the longer passages of music in this programme a slightly more heightened sense of contrast and drama would have enabled each piece to speak with even greater individuality. But overall The Sixteen undoubtedly brought consistent beauty of tone and balance, as well as an innate understanding of how this music should flow.

Details of the future concerts in the Choral Pilgrimage can be found here.

Curtis Rogers

Leave a Comment