The Sixteen, Harry Christophers
Every year The Sixteen sets off on a Choral Pilgrimage around the cathedrals and major churches and chapels of Britain, spread over several months. And every year a compact disc is released which consists of the (predominantly) Renaissance music being performed on the Pilgrimage. My admittedly not comprehensive experience of attending concerts and listening to discs has been that the discs have tended to sound like smoother, even watered down, versions of the concerts. However, the current Choral Pilgrimage disc is such that this is unlikely to be the case in 2016.
Each Pilgrimage is built round a theme, and this year it juxtaposes the music of William Byrd and Arvo Pärt. The best Renaissance choral music lends itself well to being performed beside modern or even avant-garde and although Pärt’s music could hardly be described as cutting edge or revolutionary, it has nonetheless a profoundly late 20th-early / 21st century sensibility that, on its own terms, is radical, Pärt having re-thought his musical style from the roots, and in so doing influenced many other gifted composers in different countries, such as Eric Whitacre and Paul Mealor. It is an excellent idea to place him beside Byrd, as the more vertical style of the one sets the more horizontal style of the other in mutually advantageous perspective. That said, the first two tracks are pieces by Byrd that could, in these terms, be described as vertical: the remarkable canonic Diliges Dominum the intricacies of which are beautifully described by John Milsom in his fine sleevenotes, and Christe qui lux; usually the inclusion of Byrd’s almost gimmicky setting of this homophonic hymn is a wasted opportunity when one of his more profound pieces could have been selected, but The Sixteen’s version has a claim to be the best on disc, as they sing it with a warmth and engagement absent from the other dozen or more recordings. This warmth and engagement in performance extends to the following track by Byrd, Emendemus in melius. Particularly since Joseph Kerman’s heralding it as a significant piece in Byrd’s oeuvre it seems to have been sung on disc with a degree of inhibited reverence, but The Sixteen respond to the urgency of the text without hamming, and again theirs has a claim to be the best of the dozen commercial recordings of this motet.
On a personal level I am interested that Miserere nostri is being touted as a composition jointly by Tallis (to whom it is usually attributed) and Byrd. Back in the early 1990s when I was coediting Byrd Studies (CUP, 1992) I suggested to one of our contributors that his contribution should be a consideration of whether Byrd had a hand in the composition of this work; the contributor went on to submit another proposal which led to a fine and most acceptable essay, so I am intrigued that, in the light of John Milsom’s recent edition of the Cantiones sacrae of 1575 to which Tallis and Byrd each contributed what boils down to seventeen items, this line of research is seeing the light of day. This and Byrd’s own related Miserere mihi – both virtuoso canonic works but still delightful music – receive warm (that word again) performances from The Sixteen, and the disc ends with a barnstorming rendition of Byrd’s tripartite Tribue Domine.
However, the outstanding performance and the dominating piece of music is Byrd’s enormous eight-part, ten-minute Ad Dominum cum tribularer placed appropriately at the centre of the running order. This version is forty seconds quicker than The Sixteen’s previous recording from 1989. Mainly this is explained by Harry Christophers’ dramatic acceleration at the words “Sagittae potentis acutae” (Sharp arrows of the mighty). This passage also illustrates in microcosm the wider decorum of the repertory on this disc: a homophonic passage within a predominantly polyphonic structure reflecting what I described above as the more vertical pieces by Pärt set beside the more horizontal works by Byrd. Ad Dominum also illustrates the debt which Byrd owes to his Franco-Flemish predecessors, those composers such as Gombert and Clemens from the so-called Lost Generation between Josquin and Palestrina whose works are only now becoming known and appreciated, and whose influence on English composers is only just beginning to be recognised. In the case of Byrd’s motet, he seems to have taken his theme for the opening of the second half of the motet, at the words “Heu mihi” (Woe is me), from the same point in the work titled Quemadmodum which is attributed to Taverner and survives in sources which would have been known to Byrd. It is an astonishingly progressive piece if it is indeed by Taverner, magnificent in its own right but heavily influenced by the Continentals mentioned above, so much so that an attribution to either Gombert or Clemens might well raise fewer eyebrows than the existing one to Taverner. Also, in the same passage “Heu mihi”, Byrd uses is a descending melismatic motif repeated in the inner parts which is identical to one used in a very similar way in the Kyrie of Clemens’ Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis and to an extent elsewhere in Clemens’ mass, which survives in a source also known to Byrd. It is a moot point as to whether the acceleration adds much to an already committed performance. Harry again sticks to the original manuscript source and has his second sopranos sing an E natural in the word “conclamabant” in the concluding bars, where most editors and choirs employ a flat. The natural certainly provides a further flash of exoticism in an already passionate piece of writing by a probably still relatively young Byrd. Possibly the recording by I Fagiolini has the edge over The Sixteen by sounding – no pun intended – edgier, but of the many fine recordings (now up to at least half a dozen) of this remarkable and challenging motet, this version has a claim to be the best of the rest, and is yet another reason for recommending this excellently sung and planned recording.