United Kingdom Live from London – Music for Reflection: The Sixteen / Harry Christophers (director), with Antonia Christophers (narrator). King’s Place, London, 19.9.2020. (CC)
F. Anerio – ‘Litaniae Beatissimae Virginis Mariae’
Pärt – ‘The Deer’s Cry’
Josquin des Prez – ‘O Virgo prudentissima’
Pärt – ‘Da pacem Domine’
John Sheppard – ‘Libera nos’
Josquin des Prez – ‘Pater noster’ / ‘Ave Maria’
Pärt – ‘Morning Star’
Victoria – ‘Litaniae Beatae Mariae’
interspersed with readings from T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral
The Sixteen has been part of our lives now for 41 years; its director throughout that time, Harry Christophers, in interview prior to the performance, shows incredible eloquence. His understated mode of delivery somehow encourages maximal enthusiasm from the listener: by the end, I was itching to hear the music.
The planning of the programme meant that the Pärt acts, as Christophers says, as a bit of a ‘palette cleanser’ between the more complex polyphony of the earlier pieces. Each piece by Pärt was followed by a reading from Murder in the Cathedral. The concert was held at King’s Place, King’s Cross, London, a very special place to The Sixteen – and in front of a (socially distanced) audience.
Two double choir litanies frame the evening. Anerio was a contemporary of Victoria, successor to Palestrina at the Sistine Chapel. They start with the same prayer with which T. S. Eliot ends Murder in the Cathedral. Anerio’s piece unfolds gradually, The Sixteen’s sound a perfect blend of clarity of texture and richness of sound. Their first concert out of lockdown, and in front of an audience, to boot, featured music that was mostly written in troubled times: reflecting our own. From there to Arvo Pärt’s ‘The Deer’s Cry’, a piece heard in the very first program of Live in London courtesy of VOCES8. The Sixteen’s take on the piece was wonderfully modernist, emphasising the hesitating, halting nature of the music and its use of fragile silences.
Hearing the read excerpt from the T. S. Eliot with its emphasis on the changing of the seasons seemed poignant, for our collective sense of change is certainly heightened at this time. The entry into the ‘quiet seasons’ included the line ‘Some malady is coming upon us’ (how apt is that). Antonia Christophers here, as everywhere, was faultless in her delivery.
Josquin’s six-part ‘O Virgo prudentissima’ with its pronounced use of canon is a prayer as well as an act of homage to the Virgin Mary. The complexity of the piece, paradoxically, seems to beg for a more generous acoustic than King’s Place; it would be interesting to hear the same performers in the VOCES8 Centre.
A tribute to those who died in the Madrid bombings in 2004, Pärt’s ‘Da pacem Domine’ features a slow rhythmic pattern that swings like a slow pendulum. The challenge here is sustaining the atmosphere through consistent vocal attack; one hesitation, and the tension drops. It was testament to The Sixteen hat the performance was charged throughout, broken only by the next read excerpt. T. S. Eliot’s writing as effective as ever as the protagonist awaits Spring. From this, the magnificent ‘Libera nos’ by John Sheppard, intertwined upper parts over a bass derived from the relevant plainsong. Perhaps most arresting here was the excellence of the upper voices, the sopranos’ lines given with no sense of strain.
Josquin’s conjoined ‘Pater noster’ and ‘Ave Maria’ found his language stripped to its essentials, despite its intent to be performed whenever a church service demanded an outdoor procession. The Sixteen’s performance was radiant, nowhere more so than at ‘Ave Maria, gratia plena’ (Hail Mary, full of grace).
The placing of Pärt’s ‘Morning Star’ perfectly exemplified the idea of his music as a place of rest in the programme. After the final reading, Victoria’s double choir (2 x Soprano, Altos, Tenors, Basses) ‘Litaniae Beatae Mariae’ positively glowed in its harmonies. Again, perhaps one missed a certain bloom, but here it emphasised the linear elements of the writing; and again, no missing the purity of the soprano lines.
The ecstatic reception was fully justified (and possibly reflected the sheer joy of hearing music live again). A great experience crowned by an encore: an Agnus Dei by Byrd.