Oae/Norrington, Southwark Cathedral, London

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The Independent Culture

First and last loves? It is 40 years since a young choral director called Roger Norrington first began to attract attention with revelatory readings of then little-known masterpieces of such High Renaissance and early Baroque masters as Giovanni Gabrieli and Heinrich Schütz. There followed 15 heroic years at Kent Opera, and then world fame as leading proponent of period performance of the great 18th- and 19th-century classics.

Yet here he was again, in Southwark Cathedral, leading the 16 well-tuned voices of the Choir of the Enlightenment, plus the period instruments of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment - a sonorous consort of cornetts, sackbuts, violone, organ and lutes - through a beautifully balanced programme of Gabrieli and Schütz, as if to defy the years. And from the serenely swelling opening of Schütz's funerary "Selig sind die toten" (Blessed are the dead), it was evident that Norrington was not going to let any "authentic" niggles inhibit his real love for this music.

The Geistliche Chormusik (Spiritual Choir-Music) of 1648, from which the first four Schütz items were taken, is usually considered one of his more austere collections, conditioned by the privations of the Thirty Years War. But one would scarcely guess this from the sumptuous, wave-like ebb and flow that Norrington brought to the unfolding of "Ich bin ein rechte Weinstock" (I am the true vine), or "Das ist je gewisslich wahr" (This is a faithful saying).

Norrington also seemed concerned to draw out the quasi-vocal aspect of the part-writing in the three instrumental canzoni that he interspersed from the two great collections of 1597 and 1615 that Gabrieli wrote for St Mark's, Venice - if a little at the cost of the rhythmic cut and thrust.

But the climax of the evening came with Schütz's Musikalische Exequien, composed for the obsequies, in 1636, of Prince Heinrich Posthumus of Reuss. Comprising a sequence of solos, duos and trios marvellously responsive to the prose rhythms and imagery of the text, and interspersed with full choir litanies, this is usually given plainly with voices and continuo alone.

But on this occasion, Norrington doubled the choral sections with instruments to heighten the marmoreal gravity of the sound, and for the final double-choir setting of the German "Nunc dimittis", he sent a small complement of voices plus lute up the nave to dramatise the contrast. Here, the grave intonation of the ritual dismissal, overlaid with plangent cries of "Blessed are the dead", achieved a sensuous, yielding fullness of sound and feeling that was truly sublime.

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