A personal reflection on The Sixteen’s Choral Pilgrimage 2013:
Thank our forbears that in this secular age we still have enough cathedrals for the Sixteen to perform in. Cathedrals were built for The Sixeen to perform in. That is what it felt like again last night listening to their glorious sound. Raise high the roof beam carpenters, said Salinger. The Sixteen did exactly that.
This year’s choral pilgrimage The Queen of Heaven focuses on Palestrina, Allegri and contemporary composer James McMillan.
For an opener, the male singers walked slowly down the central aisle exchanging antiphons with the women’s upper voices in the plainsong Regina caeli laetare. Then followed Palestrina’s five-voice Kyrie to open the programme and Agnus Dei to close it from his mass based on the plainsong. Inbetween we had more Palestrina in the form of motets and the Stabat Mater a 8, four works by James McMillan and Allegri’s Miserere.
What struck me generally about the Palestrina works was the use of choirs antiphonally, so the opening was a good pointer to what to listen out for. Not being an expert on early music, I’ll quote from the programme; ’Typically for Palestrina, when writing for eight or more voices, the prima pars has long sections for each of the two choirs on their won, and the secunda pars only becomes true double-choir music in the later bars’. (A point of difference says the writer with the style of Victoria, where full 8 voiced writing is more the norm). This note was with reference to Regina caeli laetare a 8 which opened the second half, but also markedly noticeable in the Stabat Mater for eight voices also which had closed the first half.
The MacMillan was a revelation for me, not being familiar beforehand with his choral oeuvre. Dominus dabit benignitatem, a short Communion motet, had repetitive chords in the lower voices, and his use of repetition in O Radiant Dawn was thrilling - the six statements of ‘Come, come…’ In Videns Dominus his use of trills almost (written out trills as I checked with one of the choir whom kindly let me see the score) is something else, and quite an original sounding fingerprint. The ‘biggie’ of the evening was MacMillan’s setting of the Miserere, dedicated to Harry Christophers, which bows to Allegri (says the composer; ‘I have nodded towards Allegri’s masterful setting by referencing the psalm chant found in his setting. However, my version of the chant is harmonised, once in a relatively traditional manner, and tehn later, ethereally and with floating drones. The opening melody, based upon a minor mode, eventually recurs at the every end in its major, with a sense of resignation and hope’.
Without going into all the detail, the version of Allegri’s Miserere is a new version based upon Ben Byram-Wigfield’s research, whose scholarly article on the history of the work is included in the programme. As my wife says, this piece of music is liquid gold for the soul. I can’t say better overall than the fact that, as usual, The Sixteen and their conductor were stunning to my ears.