The Sixteen Juxtapose Two Different Musical Worlds

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2014 (5) – Josquin, Sheppard, Taverner and Poulenc: The Sixteen/ Harry Christophers (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh,  11.8.2014 (SRT)

Motets and mass movements by Josquin, Sheppard, Taverner and Poulenc

Many people (including me) have run out of superlatives to describe how The Sixteen are about as close as you get to choral perfection in the sense that they’re so together, so well-tuned to one another, that, as I’ve said before, you can’t get a cigarette paper between the voices so perfectly judged they are.   This concert juxtaposed two very different musical worlds, inside both of which The Sixteen were entirely at home.

It was a common trend for Renaissance composers, when writing a mass setting, to draw inspiration from another musical source.  One of the most widely used of these was L’homme armé, the original setting of which began tonight’s concert, before we heard two movements of Josquin’s L’hommearmé mass.  It’s all very interesting hearing the men of The Sixteen intone the song, and it does help to see where Josquin got his inspiration from, but who goes to hear The Sixteen for that?  When the Renaissance polyphony began things really took off, with their trademark multi-layered clarity that seemed to soar and reflect back on itself, just like the architectural chambers of a great cathedral.  Taverner’s Sanctus from his mass O Michael was particularly impressive, the many vocal layers building and rising in a majestic display of multi-layered choral unity.  It was also fascinating to watch Christophers reposition his singers for each number, like expertly arranged building blocks; the sound affected  not just by the number of voices but also by where they physically stood on stage.

The other world, though, lay in the works by Poulenc, and here we were thrown right back into the 2014 festival’s theme of Culture and Conflict, because both cycles were written either just before or during France’s grim experience of the Second World War.  The Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence were written in 1938, just as France stood on the brink of its existential struggle with Nazi Germany, while Figure humaine was written during the German occupation, to be sung, in the composer’s words, “on the long awaited day of liberation.”  It builds up to a setting of Liberté that seems to be strophic but surges through many different musical forms.  For me, however, the finest moment came in the second half of the song Le menace sous le ciel rouge, whose undercurrent (was it a rocking lullaby or a regular march of triumph?) swung to and fro as the upper line rose in majesty to its positive affirmation of mankind.  Both Figure and the Quatre motets featured consonance and some pleasantly painful dissonances, which Christophers’ singers negotiated with just the right level of Gallic flair, never losing sight of the beauty but avoiding smoothing over the rough edges too much.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 31st August in venues across the city.  For full details click here.


Simon Thompson

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