The Sixteen / Harry Christophers, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Monday 23 March 2009
Harry Christophers has put together a programme of Purcell and James Macmillan for the 30th anniversary Choral Pilgrimage around Britain of his justly celebrated chamber choir The Sixteen. And although the dryish Queen Elizabeth Hall is hardly flattering to choral textures, such was the focus and intensity of their approach that the music suffered surprisingly little. Whether the programme worked as a whole was another matter.
It was difficult to think of any contemporary choral composer who could stand comparison with the superb opening Purcell group: the psalm-setting "Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes" with its ominously upwelling chromaticism; the exquisite floated double canon "Miserere mei"; the dramatically penitential anthem "Remember not, Lord, our offences".
After such harmonically daring yet cogently integrated counterpoint, Macmillan's motet "O bone Jesu" could hardly help sounding more dilute. Partly modelled on a famous 19-part motet by the Scottish Renaissance master John Carver, but interspersing "Celtic" melismata and unexpectedly glitzy harmonies at the name of Jesu, it proves effective enough from moment to moment, but curiously inchoate as a whole. And the point was rammed home by Purcell's plangent. Lamentations setting "Let mine eyes run down with tears" with every verbal rhythm, every aching dissonance relished by The Sixteen.
And so it went in the second half. There could be no doubting the sincerity of the pair of MacMillan's Strathclyde Motets, and "A Child's Prayer" in memory of the Dunblane atrocity. But as Stravinsky remarked, sincerity guarantees nothing: "Most artists are sincere and most art is bad". The MacMillan pieces are not bad, but one had the feeling that, with a bit more concentration on art, they could be better.
Beside which, the authenticity with which the still-young Purcell faced up to death in his soprano duo lament for Queen Mary "O dive custos" and his own, searing "Funeral Sentences" seemed of another kind altogether. Still more so in the ineffably "simple" second setting (the art which conceals art) of "Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts", which Chrisophers offered as a hushed encore.
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