Flight of Angels

Flight of Angels
The Sixteen’s Choral Pilgrimage 2015
Music by Francisco Guerrero & Alonso Lobo
Concert – Winchester Cathedral. 4 Sept 2015.
CD – Coro COR16128. 63’52

Guerrero: Duo seraphim clamabant, Gloria (Missa Surge propera), Laudate Dominum, Maria Magdalene, Credo (Missa de la batalla escoutez), Vexilla Regis, Agnus Dei (Missa Congratulamini mihi);

Lobo: Kyrie (Missa Maria Magdalene), Libera me, Ave Regina coelorum, Ave Maria, Versa est in luctum.

After a summer break, The Sixteen started the autumn leg of their 15th annual Choral Pilgrimage in spectacular style in the splendid surroundings of Winchester Cathedral. This year’s programme focuses on two 16th century composers connected with Seville Cathedral: Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599) and his pupil and assistant Alonso Lobo (1555-1617).

It is difficult to image just how powerful Seville was at the time of the Spanish Hapsburg ‘Golden Age’ that followed the re-conquest of the Moorish Kingdom of Granada in 1492. The Empire stretched from Transylvania, Silesia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, parts of France and southern Italy to the new world of the Americas. All the trade to and from the latter had to come through Seville, ensuring enormous wealth to that city, and to Spain. The sumptuous musical establishment of Seville (and Toledo) Cathedral are just one example of the extravagance of the Empire.

WP_20150904_20_17_24_ProAs well as the large body of singing men and boys, bands of musical instruments occupied the lofts of the two enormous organs, positioned on either side of the choir. There is pretty strong evidence that these instruments (including cornets, shawms, dulcians and trombones) were used with the singers – at very least, a bass dulcian supporting the bass line. As is usual with their Pilgrimage performances, The Sixteen did not use any instruments, unfortunately raising some questions for the authenticity police. That said, they produced an appropriately vigorous sound in this most joyous and complex of repertoires.

On the Flight of Angels CD, the spatial separation in the glorious opening track, Guerrero’s 12-voice Duo seraphim clamabant is evident, but not emphasized. However, in their live cathedral performance, the two four-voice groups of singers were placed in the narrow side aisles, either side of the central group (who were standing at the head of the nave), giving a wonderful sense of space from my privileged seat at the front. I don’t know what it sounded like from further down the nave, but it might have made the semi-choir contributions a bit quiet. Seville Cathedral is much wider than Winchester (it is built on the site of the earlier mosque, whose minaret it still retains, and remains the largest cathedral in the world), with a much more open link between nave and aisles.  However, the Winchester acoustics are excellent, the sound filling the space beautifully without any sense of echo or bounce-back.

WP_20150904_20_21_04_ProThe programme was very well balanced, with Guerrero getting the lion’s share of the music, opening and closing each half. The extraordinary range of textures that both composers use was apparent throughout, as was the sheer virtuosity of many of the pieces. But, however complex the mathematics might have been behind many pieces, they all had an inherent musical unity. Only two of the pieces were in the alternatim form, alternating chant and polyphony. This was particularly noticeable in the Mass settings. They flowed with a bubbling energy, their continual internal movement giving a remarkable sense of momentum, making the occasional moments of homophony for key phrases the more telling.

As well as the obvious word-painting in Duo Seraphim, there were occasionally other more subtle examples, including the inevitable Laudate Dominum with its psalterio et cithara … tympano et choro … chordis et organo. A delightful moment came in Guerrero’s Maria Magdalene when a lone voice was held over at the gentle end of et obstupuerunt (‘and they were affrighted’) before the increasingly confident and glorious revelation that Jesus is risen – a very human moment.

I have never been entirely sure about the rather flamboyant conducting style of Harry Christophers, but one aspect that I do admire is that he keeps to a slow beat. Most conductors beat music of this era as four-in-a-bar, a concept totally alien to the slow tactus pulse that was the basis of Renaissance music. Harry Christophers’ wafts are generally based on a half-tactus pulse, helping to encourage a smooth progression for individual voice parts. His understanding of the overall architectural structure of the music is exemplary, and he clearly inspired his singers.

WP_20150904_21_11_02_ProIt was particularly encouraging to hear some fine young sopranos in this line up – with a run of 31 concerts (as well as their many other commitments) it is no surprise that they rehearse 32 singers, drawing on 18 of them for each concert. The CD features what I guess could be referred to as the ‘first team’ of singers , but The Sixteen’s increasingly important educational work gives wonderful opportunities for younger singers to make their mark. It is worth noting that the CD includes one piece (the Guerrero Credo from the Missa de la batalla escoutez), from a previously issued CD, recorded six years before the other tracks – they were all recorded in St Augustine’s Kilburn. But the acoustics and engineering are such that I don’t think you would notice the change in recording venue.

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