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British Choir Gives Dynamic Lesson in Passion Music

April 07, 2001|JOHN HENKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Tenebrae Responses by Tomas Luis de Victoria represent one of the peaks ofRenaissance Passion music, but the accompanying lessons from the Lamentations of Jeremiah are less well-known. Conductor Harry Christophers and his British chamber choir the Sixteen drew from both for their tightly knit, stunningly sung performance for the Da Camera Society of Mount St. Mary's College, Thursday at Precious Blood Church.

This is music of paradox: opulent and austere, dramatic and contemplative, specific in creed and style yet timeless and universal. Its musical energies are generated by traditional polyphonic engines, but focused on mass rather than line.

Or so Christophers persuaded us. Victoria liked to build up sound in cumulative layers and to articulate textual points with changes in texture. Christophers extended this with great dynamic tides, ethereal plaints growing into thundering swells that reminded us that "passion" also indicates strength of feeling and expression.

His choir--16 voices here, though that is not always the case--sang with a straight, pure tone, but ever ready to risk an overly pressured rasp rather than understate an entrance. There was nothing aloof, in concept or execution, about this beautifully balanced performance.

To shoehorn a representative sample of this repertory and at least a suggestion of liturgical context into a concert span, Christophers took the six responses for Good Friday as the center, framed by the lessons for Maunday Thursday and Holy Saturday, with the hymns "Pange Lingua" and "Vexilla Regis" in between. Symmetry was served, mirroring Victoria's structures, and narrative and reflection as well.

Christophers and the Sixteen have recorded this music--and much else of Victoria--to considerable acclaim. Security and ease were everywhere apparent, from flawless diction to unwavering pitch. So too was a sensuous revelry in the sheer joy of the doing, which well reflected the multifaceted but never dour intensity of the music.

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