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Music Review Sacred and profane solace for the soul

The Sixteen
Kings Place, London N1


IN A series of concerts around Britain over the past seven months The Sixteen, led by their founder and conductor Harry Christophers, have been showcasing and contrasting the works of two great English composers, William Cornysh and Benjamin Britten, who were prolific writers of choral music but whose work was separated by more than four centuries.


Although most of the dates have been in cathedrals, chapels and churches, the series came to an end in London at a decidedly secular venue, fitting perhaps for a programme that has looked at how both composers mixed the profane and the sacred — profane in the sense of outward-looking, wordly and non-religious works and sacred as in those underpinned by a greater element of inward spiritual reflection.


Setting aside the likelihood that the 14th-century works of William Cornysh were actually from two men of the same name — father and son — and that we’ll probably never find out who wrote what, the contrast between “him” and Britten is an interesting one to make.


Presenting five compositions from Cornysh and four from Britten, The Sixteen — 18 of them on this occasion — seemed to be making the point that despite the vast gulf in history between the two, and although it is easy enough to detect that Britten is the more modern of the composers, actually they have more in common than they have to differentiate between them.


On another level, we were also shown that whether sacred or profane in outlook, music possesses a unique quality that raises our thoughts to a higher plane.


All of this the audience was left to conclude by itself, for there was not a word throughout the proceedings from anyone, not even the conductor — an admirable show of restraint that left the audience to stew comfortably, and uninterruptedly, in its own contemplative juices.


Fittingly, the two highlights of the evening were one sacred — Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin, composed when he was just 16 but as beautiful as anything he ever produced — and one profane, Cornysh’s folksy Ah Robin, Gentle Robin.


Both were delivered with the kind of cut-glass precision that the frock-coated and occasionally ebullient Christophers demands of the voices at his disposal.


That said, the most enthusiastic responses from the audience were reserved for Britten’s Advance Democracy, with its stirring secular lyrics by the communist poet Randall Swingler and for Cornysh’s Ave Maria, mater Dei, urgently wrought in theological Latin.


The finale, Sacred and Profane, Britten's collection of eight pieces based on medieval poems — part carol, part folk tune — neatly stitched the evening together.


It was difficult not to wish to hear such music in the more uplifting atmosphere of one of the sacred places that the Sixteen had previously visited on their tour. While Kings Place is a fine venue with many modern attributes, a pervading sense of spirituality is not one of them.


Nonetheless, the genius of Cornysh and Britten prevailed.




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