Handel: Belshazzar

Handel: Belshazzar
The Sixteen Choir & Orchestra, Harry Christophers
The Grange Festival
The Grange, Northington, Hampshire. 28 June 2019

I think that few opera-goers would argue that Handel oratorios should not be staged as operas, despite the risk of letting opera directors loose on them. They are generally full of operatic images and action and usually lack the textural and plot bafflement and cross-dressing of many of Handel’s proper operas, although their Biblical stories come with their own element of bafflement. Their English language text can be rather clunky, as it certainly is in Belshazzar, but the momentum of the music and the large role for a choir makes them a particularly effective musical and theatrical show.

Following on from their recent partnership with the Academy of Ancient Music for Figaro The Grange Festival partnered with the choir and orchestra of The Sixteen (celebrating their 40th birthday) for a fully staged version of Handel’s Belshazzar. the story is taken from the Book of Daniel, and recounts the fall of Babylon at the hands of Cyrus the Great and the freeing of the Jewish nation from captivity. Directed by Daniel Slater with Robert Innes Hopkins as the designer, the setting, staging and direction was, with a  few exceptions, excellent. A wall of Pink Floyd proportions was initially spread across the stage front, with the tip of a Breughelesque Tower of Babel peeking above the ramparts. Said tower swivelled through 180 degrees to reveal the internal settings. Continue reading

A Renaissance Christmas

A Renaissance Christmas
The Sixteen, Harry Christophers

Coro, COR16167. 67’11

A Renaissance Christmas

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. Continue reading

Star of Heaven: The Eton Choirbook

Star of Heaven: The Eton Choirbook Legacy
The Sixteen, Harry Christophers
CORO. COR16166. 66’37

Star of Heaven: The Eton Choirbook Legacy

You need to read the title of this recording carefully – The Eton Choirbook Legacy, the key word being ‘Legacy’. Alongside pieces by Walter Lambe, William Cornysh and Robert Wylkynson from the famous c1500 Eton College Choirbook are compositions by five contemporary composers, commissioned by the Sixteen’s Genesis Foundation to contrast with and compliment the Eton pieces. Four are direct responses to Eton Choirbook pieces, the fifth is Stephen Hough’s four-movement Hallowed, composed for the British Museum’s recent ‘Living with Gods’ exhibition. Continue reading

The Old Colony Collection

The Old Colony Collection
Handel and Haydn Society Chorus, Harry Christophers
Coro COR16145. 69’35

Music by James Kent, Thomas Linley, Charles Avison, Samuel Chapple, Samuel Webbe, Handel Mozart, and Mendelssohn.

The Old Colony CollectionThe Handel and Haydn Society Chorus of Boston was formed in 1815 and is the oldest still performing arts organisation in the US. It was formed to ‘improve the style of performing sacred music’ and to introduce the music of its titular composers. Interestingly their quest to perform the ‘old and the new’ actually referred to Handel as the former and Haydn as the latter. It was not all education and graft though – in his introductory note, Harry Christophers mentions that ‘inspiring libations to be had and membrers were often seen heading downstairs for a break’ – a practice referred to as ‘tuning’!

During last year’s Bicentennial, some of their early music publications came to light, one being The Old Colony Collection, its crumbling leather Continue reading

Haydn: Symphony 7 & 83, Violin Concerto in C

Haydn: Symphony 7 & 83, Violin Concerto in C
Handel and Haydn Society, Aisslinn Nosky, violin, Harry Christophers
Coro COR 16139. 74’24

Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 7 & 83 & Violin Concerto in C majorAlthough Bach is something of a God-like figure for me, I think he would be rather scary to actually meet. I have often felt that I would love to have sat at a nearby table where I could overhear Bach, but would rather actually meet and converse with Haydn. The pieces on this CD demonstrate something of those aspects of Haydn’s character that make him appear so approachable. Amongst the first works that Haydn wrote after his 1761 arrival at the Esterházy court were the three symphonies based on the times of the day – Le main, Le midi and Le soir. Many players in the orchestra were already friends of his from Vienna, and these three symphonies were an inspired calling card for their new musical director, with most of the players given key solo moments. Continue reading

Haydn: The Creation

Haydn: The Creation
Handel + Haydn Society, Harry Christophers
CORO: COR16135. 51’39+46’36

Sarah Tynan, soprano; Jeremy Ovenden, tenor; Matthew Brook, bass-baritone

Boston’s Handel + Haydn Society gave the first US performance of Haydn’s The Creation in 1819, just three years after their foundation, having performed Part One in their first year. Their name (at the time, a representation of their interest in ‘old’ and ‘new’ music), has a resonance with The Creation. It was Haydn’s response to hearing Handel’s Isreal in Egypt and Messiah in the 1791 Westminster Abbey Handel Festival, with a large choir and orchestra of more than 100 people. Two hundred years after their foundation, the Handel + Haydn Society’s bicentennial season ended with two performances in Boston’s Symphony Hall, Boston on 1 and 3 May 2015. This double CD is a live recording of those performances. I didn’t detect any audience noise or other potential live recording mishaps, but certainly detected the thrill and exhilaration of live music making. It bubbles over with the energy and vitality of a live performance, rather than a carefully crafted studio recording. Continue reading

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). Continue reading

The Sixteen’s Vespers – Guildford Cathedral

Such is the profile and schedule of The Sixteen that I was surprised to find that their short tour of the Monteverdi Vespers was the first time they had toured with orchestra and choir together. Of their eight venues (six cathedrals, and two concert halls), I saw them in Guildford Cathedral (on 30 Jan), a pared-down Gothic building designed in the 1930s and finally opened in 1961. The acoustics are good, at least from my seat close to the performers, who were positioned in what would have been termed ‘the crossing’ (in front of the choir and chancel) if there had been proper transepts. Very professional looking TV cameras broadcast to monitors to the sell-out audience down the long nave. The sequence of movements was what has become the traditional one, as were several other aspects of the performance including, arguably, taking the sequialtera passages too fast. The (more substantial) Magnificat was sung at higher pitch. With 20 singers and 24 instrumentalists, this was an aurally powerful performance, although the tiny box organ was only occasionally audible. The use of such organs is common in the UK although I urge you to try and hear the Vespers (and any Bach cantatas, for that matter) performed with a church organ (for example, see my review of the Cantar Lontano recording in the October 2014 Early Music Review). The rest of the continuo group was cello, violone, chitarrone, harp and dulcian, with string/recorders and cornett/sackbuts divided left and right. The vocal soloists, all stepping forward from the choir, were sopranos Grace Davidson and Charlotte Mobbs, tenors Mark Dobell and Jeremy Budd and basses Ben Davies and Eamonn Dougan – all most impressive. Relatively limited use was made of the available space, the main exception being the tenor/theorbo duet Nigra Sum which was performed from halfway down the central aisle, and Jeremy Budd singing Audi coelum from the pulpit. The echo passages were sung from somewhere towards the altar.   As with their other cathedral venues, the singers in the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria were the local cathedral choristers, in this case Guildford’s very able girls choir.