The feast of St Cecilia, patron of musicians is in November, and The Sixteen opted to celebrate it with a programme of 20th and 21st-century music, some of which was written in honour of the saint. Tying in with Kings Place’s year-long Venus Unwrapped series celebrating women in music, other pieces in the concert all involved women in one way or another – as composers, translators of the text or as dedicatees.
In terms of interpretation, The Sixteen were their usual acme of perfection, delivering precision with warmth and richness of tone. Their director, Harry Christophers, controlled dynamic and speed with a sure understanding of idiom, such that the different sections of Britten’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia were performed to bring out the best of Auden’s quirky text (‘I cannot go’ was light on its feet and the opening bass line in ‘O ear whose creatures …’, had a tread without being over-hefty). Indeed, a flexibility with rhythm and a sure understanding of dynamic contrast saved two otherwise fairly staid pieces (Elizabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ the Apple Tree and Peter Maxwell Davies’ Lullaby for Lucy) from being simply charming musical fillers. Although the dry acoustic of Kings Hall One suited many of the text-heavy pieces, sadly, Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin lost out slightly from a lack of reverb; normally, the semi-chorus responses crystallize out of the echo from the full-choir sections, but slight silence between them made the piece feel a little robotic. Herbert Howells’ Take him, earth, for cherishing (whose Latin text was translated by Helen Waddell) was, however, given a five-star treatment in which the beauty of every phrase of the moving poetry could be savoured.
The selection of pieces presented few challenges in tonality. Roxanna Panufnik’s Prayer, with its sharp-cornered soprano lines in an almost jazz idiom was perhaps the most left-field of all the works on offer. Ruth Byrchmore’s Prayer of St Teresa of Avila fell into the popular, but now overdone, idiom of largely homophonic material slightly enlivened by internally clashing note clusters. Her A Birthday, though, was a more lively affair whose first stanza of ‘twittering over a pedal note’ resolved into a more stately homophony whose final fanfares decayed to an impressive pianissimo. Margaret Rizza’s two works (O speculum columbe and Ave generosa) both contained repeating sections whose voicing or harmonic composition changed, bringing an interesting mix of variety and growing familiarity to the listening experience.
It being very nearly Advent, the concert also included a smattering of carols. Cecilia McDowall’s Now may we singen and Of a Rose are both settings of mediæval texts whose bouncy, syncopated lines were deftly delivered, and brought to mind those mid-20th-century carols by the likes of Richard Rodney Bennett, from the apogee of the Willcocks years at King’s. Christina Rossetti’s well-known poem Christmas Eve was given a fresh rendering in a setting by Kim Porter, an alto in The Sixteen. Very much a choral singer’s piece, it’s full of rich harmony (especially the delightfully self-indulgent internal decorations in the alto part) under an enchanting melodic line.
The star of the evening, though, was Alissa Firsova’s setting of seven verses of the Stabat Mater. Although some of the musical material is influenced by an angular 20th-century idiom (the arcing phrases in ‘Inflammatus et accensus’, for example), this is interleaved with lines – or sometimes just brief cadences – that come straight from 19th-century romanticism.