The Sixteen in Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral: music that raises the hairs on the back of your neck

The Sixteen in Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral: music that raises the hairs on the back of your neck

On Friday evening we were in the Metropolitan Cathedral for a concert by Harry Christopher’s The Sixteen, part of a national tour – called The Choral Pilgrimage 2013 – that has been progressing from one cathedral to another since the beginning of March.  The Sixteen are renowned for their immaculate interpretation of both medieval and contemporary religious choral music, and Harry Christopher talked of this tour bringing ‘great music back to the buildings for which it was written’.

The music in question was programmed under the title The Queen of Heaven, the theme being an array of sacred choral pieces connected with the Virgin Mary, some praising her, some articulating her grief at the foot of the Cross. All but one of the works were by two composers, both working in the same tradition of devotional choral music but centuries apart. One was Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina, regarded as representing ultimate perfection in sacred choral music since the 16th century. The other, James MacMillan, was a contemporary Scottish composer whose music is inspired by his Roman Catholicism and sympathies for the oppressed (example: back in Capital of Culture year, 2008, we saw a performance of his work Búsqueda which uses poems by the Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina, interlaced with the Latin text of the Mass). Alongside works by these two composers was a new, radically re-worked, version of Allegri’s Miserere.

Sacred choral music is not my usual cup of tea (I suffered a long time from the childhood trauma of repeated weekly doses of my mother – a Methodist, mind you – singing along heartily to Choral Evensong on the Home Service.  To me the music seemed deadening, depressing – a long way from Lift Up Your Hearts).  But Jan Garbarek’s collaborations with the Hilliard Ensemble have won me over to the ethereal beauty of choral music, especially when performed in the sublime acoustics of a cathedral (as we have experienced in Gloucester cathedral and in St David’s cathedral).

Listening on Friday evening as the voices of The Sixteen blended harmoniously in the magnificent acoustics of the Metropolitan cathedral, I really felt a sense of the rapture that medieval listeners must have experienced, hearing music that sounded unearthly, like no music they would have heard outside the walls of church or cathedral. It’s music that raises the hairs on the back of your neck.

There were moments in the medieval compositions by Palestrina and Allegri that moved me, but it was the contemporary pieces by James MacMillan that I enjoyed the most: edgier, with a mixture of dissonant and medieval.  One piece – Dominus dabit benignitatem – featured ecstatic sopranos soaring over deeper, darker harmonies, while Videns Dominus presented dramatic contrasts between passages that hinted at influences from Celtic bagpipe music and moments of pregnant silence. Also on the programme was Macmillan’s Miserere, his setting of Psalm 51, which harks back to Allegri’s 17th-century setting, but with modern timbres and harmonies.

The programme:

Plainsong  –  Regina caeli laetare
Palestrina  –  Kyrie from Missa Regina caeli
MacMillan  –  Dominus dabit benignitatem
Allegri       –  Miserere (new version)
MacMillan  –  Videns Dominus
Palestrina  –  Stabat Mater a8
Palestrina  –  Regina caeli laetare a8
Palestrina  –  Vineam meam non custodivi
MacMillan  –  O Radiant Dawn
Palestrina  –  Pulchrae sunt genae tuae
MacMillan  –  Miserere
Palestrina  –  Agnus Dei I-III from Missa Regina caeli

Harry Christophers explains the new version of Allegri’s Miserere