Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Iberian Roots: The Sixteen in a programme of poignant polyphony at Wigmore Hall

27 March 2022


Harry Christophers brings the light of Sixteen candles to the Wiggy.

The Sixteen

The Sixteen (Photo: Firedog)

The Virgin Mary’s sorrow at the death of her son finds its most poignant expression in the 13th century hymn Stabat Mater, but the season of Lent provides many other opportunities for liturgical outpourings of sorrow – both Marian and other – and The Sixteen, taking time away from their 2022 ‘Choral Pilgrimage’, explored some of this material on Sunday evening, adopting as their focus late Renaissance/early Baroque works by composers with an Iberian connection (Domenico Scarlatti squeezing in on a technicality, having been born in Naples, a dependency of the Spanish crown at the time).

As always, the group produced a well blended choral sound that showcased the subtleties of the range of music on offer, from the often homophonic declamatory style of Padilla’s Mirabilia testimonia – the statements of each of the two choirs crashing against each other – to the gentler, more tangled polyphony of Cardoso’s Sitivit anima mea, or the melody-driven hymnody of Scarlatti’s Iste confessor – in which verses of a solo soprano accompanied by instruments were elegantly contrasted with full choral harmony verses.

Harry Christophers clear direction ensured that dynamic and speed spoke as much as the text, whether that was through the sudden quiet of ‘Et Iesum, benedictum fructus ventris’ in Padilla’s Salve Regina, or the slow growth to an almost unbearable intensity of the passage ‘Ierusalem, converte ad Dominum Deum tuum’ in The Lamentations of Jeremiah by the same composer.

“…the group produced a well blended choral sound that showcased the subtleties of the range of music on offer…

The three instruments on stage – organ (Alastair Ross), theorbo (Eligio Luis Quinteiro) and harp (Joy Smith) – made excellent contributions to the texture of the pieces they played in, giving solidity to the two lengthy Padilla works, and bringing welcome timbral contrast to the Scarlatti Iste confessor (which could have been rather repetitively bland without).

Works for solo organ played on modern concert chamber organs are never particularly exciting, as while the instruments are a useful compromise for ‘historically informed’ continuo credentials, they lack the more interesting variety of timbres of larger church instruments of the time that would have taken pieces like Cabezón’s variations on Ave Maris Stella or Correa’s Quinto tiento de medio registro de tiple de septimo tono beyond a well-played academic keyboard exercise to become inspiring pieces of music. Ross gave us two dextrous and intelligent performances, but, sadly, they remained musical fillers.

The star work of the evening was Domenico Scarlatti’s setting of the Stabat Mater for 10 voices and continuo. Scarlatti (D) is really known for his vast output of virtuosic keyboard sonatas, so a multilayered choral work that, in contrast to its predictable rapid fugal passages, is also full of legato writing containing achingly built suspensions, seems almost atypical. But, goodness, it works as a piece, and Christophers and the performers brought out every nuance of its complex moods – from the oddly triumphant sudden switch to a major key where Simeon’s prophecy (‘pertransivit gladius’) is fulfilled, through the exquisite build-up of tension from the scrunchy placements of ‘Sancta mater, istud agas’ and the challenging tenor runs of ‘Inflammatus’, to the furiously jerky, fugal ‘Amen’. The voices were singing one to a part, which can be risky, but The Sixteen’s understanding of the idiom and musical intelligence showed here, as, although each voice had character (thus bringing that slight feel of a Baroque cantata to the work), they blended perfectly, not only in the sections of choral homophony, but in the busier contrapuntal demands that Scarlatti makes of them. The three instruments (more continuo than usual for the work) were used sensitively – again, to add shimmer and timbral interest, as well as providing that extra wall of sound for the piece’s exultant final passage.


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Iberian Roots: The Sixteen in a programme of poignant polyphony at Wigmore Hall
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