O Come, Emmanuel!

O Come, Emmanuel!
Ensemble Plus Ultra
St John’s, Smith Sq. 17 December 2015

Victoria: Missa Ave Regina caelorum; Byrd: Lady Mass Advent Propers; Hieronymus Praetorius: Magnificat quinti toni, and pieces by Morales, Michael Praetorius etc.

As part of the 30th annual St John’s, Smith Square Christmas Festival, Ensemble Plus Ultra contributed a programme of Advent and Christmas music from Spain, England, and Germany. The rather curious opening had three female singers on stage, while five men approached down the two side aisles, deconstructing the Advent chant Veni, veni Emmanuel by passing it between all three groups. The rest of the first half was a very effective interspersing of Victoria’s 1600 Missa Ave Regina caelorum with Byrd’s 1607 five-part Propers for Lady Mass during Advent. This was preceded by Victoria’s 1581 double choir setting of the Missa Ave Regina caelorum antiphon, upon which the parody mass was based. Although the contrast between the two works (one intended for grand performance in a large cathedral, the other for secretive domestic use) could have been disconcerting, in practice it was the similarity between the styles of the two composers that was interesting.

We moved from Advent into Christmas in the second half, the main feature of which was Hieronymus Praetorius’s glorious double choir 1622 Magnificat quinti toni complete with the Christmas interpolations of the carols Joseph, lieber Joseph mein, and In dulci jubilo. Although the eight a capella singers were perhaps some way from the presumed large-scale festive Hamburg performance (with instruments and organ?) that Praetorius probably intended, they produced a grand sound, relishing in the muscular Fecit potentiam and dismissively brisk dispersit superbos. They followed with a sequence of smaller-scale pieces, including Victoria’s famous O magnum mysterium, sung with great delicacy, ending with Michael Praetorius’s Es ist ein Ros entspungen, the inevitable Gaudete, the Coventry Carol, and Riu, riu, chiu.

Ensemble Plus Ultra bill themselves as “not a choir but a consort of chamber musicians”, a description that is usually more associated with an instrumental group. Although one of the singers introduced aspects of the programme, and gave starting notes, there is no conductor or obvious director, which I generally favour, and no strong evidence that one was needed. Their singing was strong, which sometimes led to rather more vibrato than I would normally favour.

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