Spitalfields Music: Siglo de Oro

Spitalfields Music
Siglo de Oro

Patrick Allies conductor, Sam Corkin saxophones
St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch. 10 December 2016

Music by Judith Weir, Will Todd, Pierre Certon, Matthew Kaner, Sam Rathbone, Antoine Mornable,
Bonnie Miksch, Francis Pott, Hieronymus Praetorius, Richard Allain, Gareth Wilson, Stuart Turnbull, Josquin des Prez, Ralph Allwood, Owain Park.

Spitalfields Music has long had a reputation for encouraging new groups and performers. One such was the a-cappella vocal group Siglo de Oro, whose professional debut was in the 2014 Spitalfields Music Winter Festival, although they had been singing together since their London student days. They are one of a number of such groups that get a quick invitation back, on this occasion with a well-constructed Advent programme that included an impressive number of new commissions.

A long-held tradition in the Catholic church has been to include in services in the Advent week before Christmas a set of special Magnificat antiphons, each beginning with the letter ‘O’, giving them the name of the ‘O Antiphons’ or the ‘Great Os’. The best known example stemming from this practice is the Advent hymn O come, O come, Emmanuel, which is a paraphrase of the last of these antiphons. Each of the O antiphons reinforce the Biblical prophecies of his birth. Siglo de Oro commissioned eight composers to write contemporary versions of these antiphons, which they presented alongside settings from Renaissance composers. Each of the new commissions includes a saxophone. 

The first O antiphon was preceded by a setting of the Advent Prose Rorate caeli (used to announce the start of Advent) by Judith Weir, a former Artistic Director of the Spitalfields Festival and the current ‘Master of the Queen’s Music’. Will Todd’s O Wisdom used the saxophone to provide a opening riff to the vocals before expanding into filigree passages. Matthew Kaner’s O Adonai used the saxophone as a drone while the slow moving and tightly harmonic choral lines evolved. It was preceded by a rich textures version by Pierre Certon (1510-1572), the imitative polyphony leading to some wonderful scrunchy harmonic clashes. The influence of Renaissance polyphony on Sam Rathbone’s O Root of Jesse was clear, the slow moving harmonic pulse contrasting with the overlain saxophone solo.

Antoine Mornable’s O clavis David demonstrated intricate Renaissance polyphony with distinctive false relations and a little five-note scale in the inner voices. As with the Certon O Adonai, it concluded with a lenghty melisma, something picked up by Francis Pott’s O Key of David with its florid vocal lines and an itinerant saxophone moving from the side to the back of the stage, and back again. The first half finished with one of the most glorious Magnificat settings from the Renaissance period, the Magnificat Quinti toni by the Hamburg organist/composer Hieronymus Praetorius. His alternatim double choir setting showed obvious influence from the Italian polychoral composers, with a unity based on each section being built on a rising triad. His expressive word painting included echo passages as the proud were scattered and the rich sent empty away.

The first carol of the evening opened the second half, with Bonnie Miksch’s setting of There is no Rose of Such Virtue, the opening giving a chance for Siglo de Oro’s four excellent sopranos to shine. Further settings of the O antiphons followed, starting with Richard Allain’s O Dayspring a close harmony setting with the saxophone positioned towards the back of the church and finishing with a gorgeous low-set cadence reflecting the ‘darkness and shadow of the earth’. Gareth Wilson’s O King of the Nations and Stuart Turnbull’s O Emmanuel followed, the latter perhaps showing some hints of Arvo Pärt. Josquin des Prez’s O Virgo virginum was contrasted with Ralph Allwood’s O Virgin of Virgins, which finished with two sopranos whispering the ‘divine mystery’. The evening finished with another carol setting by the youngest of the composers featured, Owain Park (b.1993), and his lively Tomorrow shall be my dancing day.

I have been impressed with Siglo de Oro on previous hearings, and remain so. They produce an excellent consort sound, with no individual singers dominating. The 14 singers stood in a half-square, with voice types mixed up, and technique often used in rehearsal to encourage listening, but also very effective in concert. Director Patrick Allies has an engaging conducting style that focuses on the music, rather than self-promotion. Sam Corkin’s saxophone playing was evocative and musical in some writing that was probably not that easy to play. I am not sure if there was any improvisation in any of the compositions, but he managed to make it sound as though there was, given the exploratory nature of some of the melodic lines. It was interesting to hear how the eight composers treated the saxophone, with only occasional references to the influential Hilliard Ensemble/Jan Garbarek recordings of the early 1990s.

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