The Sixteen Explore the Journey of the Magi Through Timeless Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom The Three Kings: The Sixteen / Harry Christophers (conductor), Cadogan Hall London, 20.12.2016. (CS)

Traditional – I wonder as I wander
Jacob HandlOmnes de Saba
JH Hopkins Jnr – Three Kings of Orient
Peter Fricker – A Babe is born
Traditional – Thys endere nyghth I saw a syghth
Herbert Howells – Long, long ago
Giovanni PalestrinaReges Tharsis
Traditional – Wexford Carol
Giovanni PalestrinaVidentes stellam Magi
Traditional – Children’s Song of the Nativity
John SheppardReges Tharsis
Plainsong – Hymn: Crudelis Herodes
Orlande de LassusOmnes de Saba
Traditional – The First Nowell
Peter Warlock – Bethlehem Down
Peter Cornelius – Three Kings
LassusVidentes stellam Magi
James BassiQuem pastores laudavere
Plainsong – Magnificat Antiphon: Tribus miraculis
Anerio – Magnificat à 8

The Sixteen’s Christmas ‘pilgrimage’ arrived in Cadogan Hall this week, and I attended the first of two performances of The Three Kings – a programme presenting diverse creative celebrations of the journey of those ‘three kings from Persian lands afar’ who, as Andrew Stewart’s engaging programme notes reminded us, ‘travelled from a stable in Bethlehem to pay homage to a new-born child’, carrying their wisdom and gifts, to prevent, in the words of John Donne, ‘Th’effect of Herod’s jealous general doome’.

The Three Kings ‘draws from the wealth of music written in memory of the Magi […] and of the shepherds moved to the manger’, and the programme itself comprises three repertoires: traditional carols and plainsong, devotional polyphonic works from the Renaissance, and more recent responses to the Magi’s historic journey.

Palestrina’s five-part Reges Tharsis sets text from Psalm 72, which was used in European cathedrals to celebrate the Feast of Epiphany.  The Sixteen’s performance was immediately striking for the vibrancy of the sound and for the seamless entries which unfolded with inevitability and such naturalness that one could imagine them being ‘received’ by Palestrina directly from ‘on high’.  Yet, the counterpoint remained transparent and lucid, even as the sound washed over the Hall.  Ever alert and responsive to textual detail, Christophers made the vivid repetitions of ‘omnes reges terrae’ – ‘all the kings of earth’ – dance with life and joy.  The composer’s double-choir Videntes stellam Magi (à 8) was even more energised, with Christophers moving and swaying across the platform, coaxing his singers to conjure incredible timbral variety and deeply satisfying expanses of sound.  Here, the homophonic repetitions of ‘aurum, thus et myrrham’ (gold, frankincense and myrrh) shone with an intensity equal to the gleam of the precious gifts themselves.

Orlande de Lassus’s setting of the same text (à 5) drove vigorously forward through the individual lines.  ‘Et apertis thesauris suis’ (And they opened their treasures) pushed onwards with terrific excitement and a sense of discovery, while in Lassus’s hands the motifs representing the presentation of the priceless metals raced in arcing chains.  The composer’s Omnes de Saba (à 8), the Gradual for the Mass of Epiphany, was richly textured and weighty, and returned us to Reges Tharsis et insulae whose text it interweaves with Isaiah’s prophecies.

Giovanni Francesco Anerio began his musical career as a choirboy at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome and at St Peter’s where he studied under Palestrina.  In 1604 he succeeded his teacher at the Sistine Chapel.  Christophers clarified the complex divisions of the antiphonal dialogue of Anerio’s Magnificat à 8, creating great momentum as the music switched between homophony and polyphony, and between temporal modes, with grace and beauty.

Alongside these Venetian motets were works from other traditions.  The Slovenian composer Jacobus Handl lived in Austria and Bohemia.  His five-part anthem Omnes de Saba venient opened with a sudden surge of rich counterpoint, with small motifs pointing the text in thrilling fashion.  With the words ‘et laudem Domino’ (the praise of the Lord), a repeating, climbing step-wise motif swept through the voices, culminating in a glorious ‘Alleluia’ which rose and fell exultantly.  John Sheppard’s setting of Reges Tharsis opened up vast vertical vistas.  The long melismatic phrases introducing ‘reges Arabum et Saba’ (the kings of Arabia and Sheba) seemed to take us back to the ebb and flow of Palestrina but any such connection was disrupted by the intercession of chants sung by the resonant lower voices from which the higher voices spiralled off in vivid polyphony.

The Sixteen’s journey carried them to more recent times too.  Peter Racine Fricker’s ‘A Babe is Born’ was written in 1962 and sets a fifteenth-century carol text describing the nativity.  There was a lovely sense of cleanness and light, though a frisson rustled through the Latin text of the verse endings: ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’; ‘O Lux beata Trinitas’.  The angel’s cry, ‘Why are ye so sore aghast?’, shone with purity, while the vibrant harmonies of the following line, Iam ortus solis cardine (Now the sun has risen), gleamed with kaleidoscopic rays.  In the final verse, the repetitions of the angels’ unison cry, ‘Gloria tibi, Domine’, swept to a conclusion of glorious praise.

The roving lines – wonderfully shaped by Christophers – and strange, expressive harmonies of ‘Long, long ago’ by Herbert Howells had a sincerity and spirituality which was deeply moving.  (The text, written by John Buxton in 1940 while he was a prisoner of war in Bavaria, was set by Howells in 1950 for the Lady Margaret Singers of Cambridge.)  The Sixteen (actually eighteen voices) became a single engaging storyteller; the basses provided firm pedal foundations above which the higher voices took melodic flight.  The pronouncement ‘Oh! So long ago Christ was born in Bethlehem’ had great strength; here, as consistently throughout the programme, Christophers’ vigilant sensitivity to the finer points of the text was impressive – ‘born’ seemed to ripple with brightness and power.  The close was utterly absorbing as the voices sank to the depths, pronouncing Buxton’s prophecy with elegiac poise.

Peter Cornelius’ well-known ‘The Three Kings’ (1859) allowed us to enjoy bass Ben Davies’ lovely, fluent solo; his tone was beautifully even across the registers and the diction was superb (indeed, every single word rang clear and true throughout the evening’s programme).  Davies’ appealing bass stood out against the slow-moving lines of Philipp Nicolai’s chorale tune of ‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern’ (How brightly shines the morning star) in the accompanying voices beneath, but there was also some touching interplay between the soloist and the sopranos.  The soloist’s final repetition, ‘Offer thy heart’, rose magically to the third, nestling warmly into the choir’s major chord.   Peter Warlock’s ‘Bethlehem Down’ was reportedly written to fund an ‘immortal carouse’ on Christmas Eve 1927, at a time when he and the poet Bruce Blunt were in financial dire straits.  (They submitted the carol to the Daily Telegraph’s annual Christmas carol competition, and won!)  But, Warlock’s slow, evocative setting of Blunt’s poem gives no hint of the excessive drinking bout that it might have bankrolled.  The dignified melody was enriched by occasional melismas – ‘Beautiful robes’, said the young girl to Joseph’ – and the movement of the middle voices at the cadence points was tenderly phrased with gentleness and delicacy.

No less care was bestowed upon the traditional carols and plainchants.  The programme opened with soprano Alexandra Kidgell’s restrained yet crystalline solo first verse of ‘I wonder as I wander’; she was joined by the other five sopranos for the central verse, but Kidgell alone brought the final verse to a close, lightly announcing that whatever ‘wee thing’ the baby Jesus might have wished for, ‘He surely could have it ‘cause he was the King’.  Tim Jones, Ben Davies and Eamonn Dougan were dulcet bass soloists in J.H. Hopkins Jnr’s ‘We Three Kings’.  The sheer variety of the textual and timbral nuance that Christophers drew from this familiar carol was astonishing.  The rallentando and receding tone of the image, ‘Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,/ Sealed in the stone-cold tomb: was unnerving.  The refrain was, by turns, lyrical with wonder, whispered with anticipation, full of joy.

The traditional ‘This endris night’ lilted gently yet warmly; meticulous attention was given to the phrasing, with the tiniest wisps of air allowed to articulate the list, ‘My son, my brother, father, dear’, or to lift the recurring motif, ‘By by, lullay’.  While the child Christ’s declaration, ‘Yea, I am known as heaven-king’ swelled with confident warmth, his mother’s response, ‘Now, sweet son, since thou art a king,/ Why art thou laid in stall?’, was mild and soft.  The homophonic ‘Wexford Carol’ told its tale with beguiling sincerity and intimacy.  The ‘Children’s Song of the Nativity’ was sung quite slowly by soloists Kidgell and tenor Mark Dobell, evoking both curiosity and peace.  The gentle nuances of James Bassi’s arrangement of Quem Pastores Laudavere coloured the past with the new; the singers’ legato was sustained as the suspensions tumbled, one after another, creating vividness and depth.

As Renaissance exuberance and modern reflectiveness embraced the simplicity of the traditional carols, we weaved, mesmerised, across the centuries: but the beauty of The Sixteen’s singing confirmed that the message of the music that they so respectfully and reverentially performed is timeless.

Claire Seymour

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