THE extract from The Annunciation by El Greco,
displayed on the cover of the programme for The Sixteen's current
Choral Pilgrimage, Flight of Angels, speaks eloquently for the
music it introduces. The same painting, which hangs in the Prado
Museum, Madrid, can be found on the choir's accompanying CD
(COR 16128), and on it the green hues special to
this Greco-Hispanic religious painter catch in a dashing way the
unexpected message being conveyed by the green angel to the
pink-clad, blue draped Virgin.
El Greco lived from 1541 to 1614. His life thus embraced almost
exactly the dates of the great Spanish composer Francisco Guerrero
(1528-99) and his pupil Alonso Lobo (1555-1617). They also covered
the bulk of the reign of Spain's Philip II (1527-98).
The Sixteen's annual countrywide stomp has grown by stages to
take in more than 30 venues, from Oxford and Cambridge to Llandaff
and Truro, Edinburgh's Greyfriars Kirk and Perth's St John's Kirk;
Durham, Hull, and Carlisle, to Peterborough, Ealing, and
Canterbury. In practical terms, it must be substantially taxing,
when as many as three or four concerts fall in a row. One recent
sequence took them from Perth to Leicester in two days, and
Rochester the next day.
The concert at St James the Greater, Leicester, a striking
building from the start of last century, with its exquisite,
decorative Italienate arches and notable apse, and, as a
consequence, a handsome, rewarding, and beneficial acoustic,
exemplified as well as any Harry Christophers's gift for
programming, and the irresistible professionalism and mastery with
which he and the Sixteen bring dance and delight, precision,
finesse and pathos to the expressive counterpoint of Renaissance
music, of whatever nationality.
Guerrero, long associated with Seville Cathedral, was himself a
pupil of the great Cristóbal de Morales, a former singer in the
papal choir. Guerrero's Duo Seraphim (1589), which opened
their concert, would alone make the journey worth while. It is a
paradox: written for 12 voices, yet defined with such purity and
subtlety that you might have deemed it a duet or trio. It was sung
with restrained rapture: echo effects at the Sanctus, and the
sublime conclusion to final Amen, enabled one to see why
Christophers, who writes eloquently about them, rates these Spanish
works so highly.
Two works by Lobo followed, a Kyrie where sopranos paired
sublimely with tenors, and a Libera Mein which one heard exemplary
plainsong from the basses offset by some exquisite floating of the
"Quando coeli" from the sopranos. Guerrero's Gloria (from
the Missa Surge propera) included some elegant
interweaving of the voices at "Qui tollis" and superlative
upper voices ("Qui sedes") - whose exciting final passage
Christophers drove to a dramatic finale.
Guerrero lived to see, and learn from, the first whispers of the
Monteverdian secunda prattica style, and it was striking
how Psalms 148 and 150 - Laudate Dominum (eight parts,
dating from the 1590s) - seemed, even without a flurry of
instruments, to anticipate, or be so quick to absorb, the new
manner, with its vital rhythms and arresting alternations of large
and medium forces.
Apart from an unexpected modern feel, like a foretaste of Arvo
Pärt (near the start, for instance, at "emerunt aromata",
Guerrero's description of Mary Magdalene bringing spices to Jesus's
tomb positively gleamed, with magical diminuendi and
crescendi that Christophers astutely emphasised to colour
"et obstupuerunt" and "Iesum quem quaeritis
Nazarenum", the latter beginning and growing from a wondrous
Guerrero's Credo from Missa de la batalla
escoutez was especially outstanding for the lovely
ritenuto Christophers brought to "descendit de coelis",
with the tenors later eagerly breaking out; and the fascinating,
almost folk-like quality that this constantly illuminating
conductor found in the passage leading up, surprisingly, to
"qui locutus est per prophetas". Somehow, Guerrero's
personal touch here did much to humanise the sequence, rather as
Haydn used to draw on folk idioms, often unexpectedly. The
low-voice plainsong resurfaced in Guerrero's Vexilla
Regis, contrasted with some highly effective, and affecting,
interplay between soprano and tenor.
A five part Ave Regina by Lobo sparkled, rather like a
light-hearted nursery rhyme; while his Ave Maria is a
tour de force of canonic writing; but Christophers gave it
character, evincing rich sonorities and a serene flow, and added a
glorious shine at "Sancta Maria, Mater Dei". Indeed no
wonder this eloquent choir always feels in a class of its own.
Lobo's "Versa est in luctum" is, it is suggested, his
most famous piece, and the prolonged fade to the close ("Parce
mihi, Domine") gives some idea why. The Agnus Dei I and II
from Missa Congratulamini mihi, are based on the great
Franco-Flemish master Thomas Crecquillon, court singer from the
days of Charles V. It reminds one of the varied qualities and moods
that Guerrero, and later Lobo, introduced, and at which the Spanish
school excelled: ecstasy, gaiety, melancholy, longing, repose.
No group could be better placed than The Sixteen to share with
us the rich subtleties, eloquence, and vibrancy of this Iberian
music, here magnificently poised and beautifully judged.
For tour dates and locations, and booking information for
the 19 remaining performances of the tour, see www.thesixteen.com. National
box office: phone 01904 651485.