The Sixteen is on of the great choral ensembles currently on the world stage. Founded in the late 70s, it is still directed by its founder, Harry Christophers, who has been decorated for his work with the ensemble over several decades. It was a great privilege to hear the ensemble in Brisbane last night.
Their sound integrates the many different voices in the ensemble by a unanimity of phrasing born of years of singing together, and by the very important detail of singing at exactly the same dynamic as each other, whether loud or soft, in crescendo or diminuendo. This was clearest at the incredibly beautiful ends to all of their phrases, without exception, but was everywhere apparent. It was indeed the phrasing of the ensemble which caught the audience, drew them into the sound world so intimately known by the choir, and held them captivated until the last notes had melted into silence.
This wonderful concert demonstrated two very special relationships. The first was with the Scottish composer James Macmillan, one of the leading British choral composers. His remarkable Miserere, a setting of Psalm 51 which has attracted many composers over the centuries, from Josquin to Allegri (whose setting was also performed in this concert), is in fact dedicated to Christophers, who has performed Macmillan’s music all over the world. It is one of four Macmillan pieces in last night’s program – or five, if, as I suspect, the encore was also by him.
The closest parallel to Macmillan’s music in Australia is I think the music of Clare Maclean, who has a relationship with the Sydney Chamber Choir comparable to that which Macmillan has with The Sixteen. Both are deeply convinced and practising Christians who write much sacred choral music – in Maclean’s case it forms by far her best-known corpus of work. Both base their choral music to a large extent on plainchant, and write in musical idioms which are extremely accessible, often using techniques from the Renaissance such as canon. And Maclean, an Australian born in New Zealand, like Macmillan, has Scottish origins.
Macmillan’s music owes most to the Renaissance, but quite a lot to Scotland. The motet O radiant dawn included the so-called Scotch Snap, and in more than one piece I could hear the skirl of bagpipes. In Videns Dominus each phrase was entirely separate from the others, in a manner reminiscent of typically Scottish rational thinking.
Last night’s concert interwove Macmillan’s strikingly beautiful motets with music by Palestrina, the composer whose music was held up by the Counter-reformation Catholic church as an example of the “correct” way to write sacred music. More specifically, with various treatments by Palestrina of the plainsong, Regina Caeli (the Queen of Heaven of the concert’s title).
Palestrina has not been one of my favourite composers – I have long thought his powers of invention limited compared for example with those of the Prince of Music, Josquin des Prez. But this concert was a revelation to me. Harry Christophers’ relationship with Palestrina is quite remarkable. From the first notes of the Kyrie from the mass based on Regina Caeli (the concert concluded with the end of that mass, the Agnus Dei) I felt as if I were listening to music performed by the composer himself, in some time-warp where the five centuries between us and Palestrina dissolved in a fluid imaginative space. Ficta choices were impeccable. Christophers knows this music in an uncanny, irresistibly persuasive way. He shapes the music effortlessly, his whole being gently involved in the phrasing. The result was truly transporting. Perhaps most impressive was the performance of the double-choir Stabat Mater, in which Christophers brought the agonised text to life in a way that Palestrina’s great contemporary Titian would have appreciated.
The only piece on the program not by Palestrina or Macmillan was Allegri’s perhaps over-famous Miserere, as a companion to Macmillan’s setting. The version presented here corrected many of the solecisms of the well-known redaction, and gave us inventive ornamentation, some taking the hint from the chromatic clausula in the familiar version. It was a shame that the final chord had not died away before the audience’s enthusiastic clapping began. For this music, at this level of performance, the sincerest form of acknowledgement is not clapping but silence.
The Queen of Heaven
Directed by Harry Christophers
Venue: Concert Hall | QPAC, Cultural Precinct, South Bank, Brisbane
Date: Sunday 8 March 2015
Bookings: www.qpac.com.au | 136 246