A Memorable Evening of Palestrina and Poulenc with The Sixteen

United KingdomUnited Kingdom The Sixteen’s Choral Pilgrimage 2017 – Music by Palestrina and Poulenc: The Sixteen / Harry Christophers (conductor), Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, 21.7.2017. (SRT)

PoulencSalve Regina; Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence; Un Soir de neige; ‘Agnus Dei’ from Mass in G

Palestrina – ‘Surge amica mea’ and ‘Surgam et circuibo civitatem’ from Song of Songs; Parce mihi, Domine; Peccantem me quotidie; ‘Kyrie’, ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’ from Missa L’Homme Arme; Salve Regina

The Sixteen’s annual Choral Pilgrimage is now in its seventeenth year, and it has become established as a highlight of the choral year. They came to Edinburgh near its end, so I can only recommend it for another four performances (details here), but it’s well worth catching if you can.

For this year Harry Christophers has chosen Palestrina and Poulenc as his focus, comparing their very different approaches to sacred music from across a span of nearly four centuries. They both wrote from a position of devout personal faith, though from very different backgrounds, and they produced gloriously beautiful polyphony that consummates the musical traditions of their times. Typically for Christophers, the programme was well arranged so as to showcase the diversity of the composers’ output. It’s fascinating, for example, going from the joyous delirium of Palestrina’s Song of Songs settings into the penitential sadness of his Pace mihi, Domine, or into his Peccantem me quotidie which feels like it might have been written by a different composer, building a cathedral of sound out of the various voices where each line reflects back on the others so as to create something that is much greater than the sum of its parts.

What stuck with me most, however, was the diversity of what was on offer in the Poulenc selections, particularly the skill with which he communicated the mood and message of the texts he was setting. His Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence, for example, were shot through with piercing dissonances to accentuate the texts’ atmosphere of contrition, most notably in Tenebrae factae sunt, which describes the moment of Christ’s death, where the discords seem to pile up on top of each other to evoke the horror of what they are seeing. It’s all done within an atmosphere of great beauty, however, and his Salve Regina seems calculated to turn a very different face to the world in the simplicity of its setting and the almost syllabic treatment of the words. Similarly, Un soir de neige sets four rather dense poems by his friend Paul Éluard, dealing simultaneously with both the beauty of Christmas and the horror of the Nazi occupation, but Poulenc’s music is beautifully direct, cutting through the words to communicate directly with his listeners.

It goes without saying that the Sixteen sing this music with transcendent beauty that’s hard to match, let alone surpass, in the choral world today. It’s especially instructive hearing them sing the Palestrina, which has more of a tradition in the cathedrals and colleges of Britain, but which sounds totally different when sung by a choir with adult sopranos, producing a studied perfection, impeccable blend, and stunning unanimity that other choirs can only dream of. If anything, you could argue that this perfection becomes a problem in places, because Poulenc’s music is meant to be humane and earthy so as to evoke our empathy, yet here it sounds more as though it’s being sung by angels than by mortals with feet of clay.

That would be a strange thing to complain about, however, and it’s better to revel in the fact that we have singers who can produce such a celestial sound at the service of both the music and their audiences.

I’m not entirely sure I bought Christophers’ coupling, however. Lovely as was his selection, there didn’t seem to be an awful lot of answering back between the two composers, and I wondered whether the comparison would really have been any less instructive if the composers had been, say, Victoria and Vaughan Williams. That, too, seems like a churlish complaint, however, so I’ll park it and instead reflect on what was a memorable evening of music making that can, perhaps, best be described as beatific.

Simon Thompson

For more about The Sixteen click here.

Leave a Comment