DOUBLE PLAY / Bringing music to the masses: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson on the Sixteen's Bach and the Tallis Scholars' Palestrina

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BACH: Mass in B minor

The Sixteen, Orchestra of the Sixteen / Harry Christophers (Collins 70322; two CDs)

BY ALL the laws of nature, the opening 'Kyrie eleison' should never end. It's the source of some eternal spring, a ceaseless, self- perpetuating flow. The counterpoint just keeps coming; there's something absolutely inevitable about it. And that's a quality that Harry Christophers' Sixteen forces admirably convey. Nothing is forced here, nothing imposed. The choral sound is clean and open, beautifully proportioned, evenly produced - a happy medium somewhere between the madrigalian purity of Joshua Rifkin's one-voice-per- part concept and the big public occasion.

But my initial impression was that the character of the performance was too uniform: poise bordering on anonymity. The 'Gloria' doesn't exactly explode from the page, in the sense of uplifted voices, trumpets and drums breaking free of the church confines; 'Cum Sancto Spiritu' brings a keen athleticism but not the immediacy, the theatricality of a Gardiner.

Then, though, there come the great choruses of contrition and mourning and Bach's saturating harmonies find real humility in this singing. Christophers' soloists are a ripe bunch: indeed, the opulence of a somewhat breathy James Bowman and the purity of the 'Agnus Dei' are something of a contradiction in terms these days. At the close, I'd say I was spiritually refreshed more than exalted. ES

IT'S RATHER encouraging to find that scholars still don't know why Bach wrote - or rather compiled - this stupendous Mass (most of the music was reworked from earlier pieces rather than composed afresh). Mysteries may annoy tidy-minded academics, but they can also be a powerful boost to the imagination, and a performance like this deserves to be approached in an adventurous frame of mind.

The Sixteen and their orchestra are a historically conscious band, committed to period instruments, lively, anti-romantic tempos, rhythmically sharp articulation and so on. But there's absolutely nothing pedantic or contentious about the results. There's a light, dancing energy in much of this, and yet - unlike some historically correct competitors - they don't let grand ideas like the striding- soaring exchanges of the 'Sanctus' go for nothing. There's splendour and solidity too: Christophers and his team sound as though they had Wilfred Mellers' description of Bach - 'The Dance of God' - etched on their 18th-century music-stands.

In the end it's for the choruses first that I'd recommend this disc. There's some fine solo singing - as you'd expect from a team including James Bowman, John Mark Ainsley and Michael George - and yet somehow it never quite reaches the same level of intensity or energy as in the choral movements. Some of Bowman's phrasing in the 'Agnus Dei' is gorgeous, but I was very much aware of his breathing - or could the recording be to blame? Still, the final 'Dona Nobis' is thrilling, the three bright trumpets cutting through warm, radiant choral textures especially spine-tingling. Hear it if you can. SJ


Choral works by Palestrina and Allegri (Gimell CDGIM 994)

IT WAS here, in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, that a 12-year-old choirboy, name of Palestrina, first heard the sound of his future. Four hundred years after his death, Peter Phillips' wonderful choir pay homage. The sense of occasion is palpable. The atmosphere - well, it might have been more intense had we been allowed to hear a little more of the acoustic. Then again, I imagine that Gimell's engineers have given us as much as is viable without obscuring the antiphonal interplay (close and intricate) of the double-choir settings.

The voices are indeed very immediate. But singing of this calibre enjoys such scrutiny: the full and beautiful tone, the impeccable tuning, even in the most exposed part-writing - as witness the exquisite Benedictus of the Missa Papae Marcelli. And I love the open, outgoing relish of the singing - no washed-out sanctimony here. The ecstasy of the Stabat Mater is in the intensity of the harmonies, the serenity in the absolute sureness of line.

Allegri's Miserere is brought in as an elaborate centrepiece, and its three planes of sound do open up this great church to us: Deborah Roberts' seraphic melismas to and from high C sound like they're floating down from beyond the altar dome. You don't get much closer to heaven. ES

I DON'T think I've ever enjoyed Palestrina as much as in these performances. The old image of him as the model of contrapuntal purity, beautiful but cold and expressively remote, vanishes before singing like this. The Tallis Scholars' sound is clear, precise and superbly tuned as ever, but phrase after phrase comes to life, as though the texts of the Mass and the shorter devotions had once again become vital issues, demanding to be communicated. The opening phrase of the Stabat Mater rises and falls gloriously, its harmonic piquancy obviously enjoyed by the singers. The whole concert could hardly have been better served by the recording.

Perhaps it would have been nicer still if it had been possible to use CD tracking to 'optionalise' the applause (loud clapping doesn't quite sound appropriate after some of these pieces - though the performances certainly deserve it).

There is also a video, capturing the visual treasures of the location, Santa Maria Maggiore, with some skill. Whether sound and vision always relate perfectly is a difficult question - in the Missa Papae Marcelli I found that some of the hard-edged edits set up a kind of choppy rhythm of their own, in opposition to the flow of Palestrina's music. But the combination of a sculpted Pieta with the final stages of the Stabat Mater is unforgettable. SJ