A Renaissance Christmas
The Sixteen, Harry Christophers
Coro, COR16167. 67’11
The publicity blurb that came with this CD refers to it as “a perfect alternative to traditional carols”, and it certainly is. Perhaps trying to seek forgiveness for their 2015 release, The Complete Traditional Christmas Carols Collection (recorded in 1991), The Sixteen here concentrate on music from the Renaissance era. They bring their particular brand of highly professional choral singing to a well-balanced sequence of pieces from composers born between 1505 and 1580, a period when the Renaissance reached its zenith as religion in Europe reached one of its periodic nadirs.
The opening rather bouncy 14th-century song Resonemus laudibus (here given some nice little melodic additions) reappears in pieces by Eccard, Handl, and Lassus, helping to give a sense of continuity to the programme. Eccard and Handl’s versions use Lutheran chorale-like harmonisations as the basis for his polyphonySimilar bounce extends into Sweelinck’s ebullient Hodie Christus natus est.
A moment of repose comes with George Kirbye’s Vox in Rama. It was written for the 4th day of Christmas, the feast of the Holy Innocents, and tells the story of the massacre of first-born boys. Kirbye’s music is based on an earlier piece by Clemens non Papa. It is a particularly evocative piece, the intertwining polyphonic voices giving an air of serenity to one of the Bible less savoury moments. It is preceded by one of the oldest of all sacred melodies, the Advent Vespers antiphon Veni, veni Emmanuel, dating back to the time of Charlemagne in the 800’s.
It was recorded in St. Augustine’s, Kilburn in 2017, the generous acoustic adding a sprinkle of seasonal fairy dust, albeit with a recording that makes the singers sound a little distant. The pieces range from less the two minutes to nearly 10, the latter Tallis’s monumental Videte miraculum. One of the finest pieces (a difficult choice) is John Sheppard’s Reges Tharis, with its delightfully scrunchy little moments of harmonic and melodic tension, known as false relations. One gripe of mine, in concert and CD notes, is when the words do not follow the order of the music. However sensible these notes might be, they do bring on one of my gripes. Perhaps it is just a reviewer thing, but I think it might irritate anybody who wants to follow the music with the notes. Those with a more liturgical bent might also query why the usual order of Christmas events isn’t followed, the Advent Veni, veni Emmanuel, for example, coming after other pieces have celebrated the birth of Jesus. The Magi also appear before the shepherds – twice, in fact.
As usual, The Sixteen sing with an outstanding sense of consort and balance, with superb intonation. Their sopranos, a mixture of younger and more experienced singers, are particularly impressive, the clarity of their voices giving an almost boy treble-like quality in their Veni, veni Emmanuel verse.