That there is currently a revival of public interest in early music (albeit surprising) was more than evident by the Wigmore Hall’s full house earlier this week, with tickets for The Sixteen’s Monteverdi 1650: Messa a quattro voci et Salmi concert having sold out months ago.
Marking the first concert of The Sixteen’s residency at the Wigmore Hall (good news for us locals), this programme featured nine singers and six instrumentalists who performed a generous selection of some of the finest works from Monteverdi’s years as director of music at St Mark’s in Venice, such as ‘Dixit Dominus’ from Selva morale e spirituale and the eight-part motet Confitebor Primo. These works not only showcase Monteverdi’s highly melodic and expressive style, but his bravery in drawing upon the techniques he had mastered whilst composing operas, in order to create an altogether new kind of church music.
The Sixteen ensemble, which was founded over 35 years ago by conductor Harry Christophers and features both a choir and a period instrument orchestra, have secured an international reputation as one of the leading re-creators of early English polyphony and vocal masterpieces of the Renaissance. Partly thanks to a collection of mesmerising recordings and Christophers’ highly infectious energy during live performances, which can be seen from the moment he steps out onto the stage, their following may be niche, but it’s also one that’s extremely loyal and large enough to ensure a full calendar of sell-out ‘gigs’ throughout the UK and overseas.
Admittedly, choral music is something of an acquired taste, and thankfully I have acquired it, despite a certain member of my family having tried to persuade me that it was all ‘depressing Holy Willie stuff’. Having begun with a passion for Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium c.1570 (reputedly first performed at Elizabeth I’s fortieth birthday) before working my way to the more modern Fauré‘s Requiem, I hereby defend choral music by proclaiming that you certainly don’t have to be either wildly religious, going to a funeral, or highly intellectual in order to listen to it, although being able to understand Latin would be an advantage!
Imagine being in the wine aisle of a supermarket without knowing anything about grape varieties, when suddenly Malcom Gluck appears. The Sixteen is the equivalent to Malcolm in so much as their ever changing concert programmes also happen to provide an astonishing amount of guidance, with the choral music they introduce to their audiences ranging from the contemporary works of John Tavener to flamboyant instrumental works of Monteverdi’s day, and much earlier composers like Tallis whose a capella arrangements show off the human voice, and nothing else, to ravishing effect. Whether your taste is for full blown tear-jerkers or the kind of joyous sounds which might accompany the opening of the pearly gates, it’s out there for you to discover.
This is music in it’s purest, most unadulterated form and it feels extraordinary (intoxicating even) to still be listening to works first performed so many hundreds of years ago. The Sixteen are renaissance-men in the true sense, for having succeeded in doing away with the snobbery often associated with such music, they are reaping the rewards of continuing to inspire audiences around the world with songs which might otherwise have remained unheard for another four hundred years, along with promoting the works of new composers determined to keep these wonderful early styles and techniques alive.
The Sixteen’s Monteverdi 1650: Messa a quattro voci et Salmi concert took place at the Wigmore Hall on 3rd November 2015. For more information on The Sixteen and their forthcoming tour dates visit the website.