A bit of physics: if you sing a semiquaver at one end of Notre Dame, by the time the sound has reached the other end, depending on your tempo, you may well have had time to sing several more. And unless you have perfect unison from a very large choir indeed, the semiquaver is probably close to indistinguishable.

© Alison Karlin
© Alison Karlin

One of the ways in which 17th-century composers sought to solve this category of problem was polychoral music: split the choir and musicians into smaller groups and distribute them around the church, so that the everyone in the congregation is close to one of the groups. Then – and here is the clever part – write the music so that it sounds good when you hear all the parts together at somewhat arbitrary delays between each group.

A fine example of the genre is Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Messe à quatre choeurs, which was performed for us by Ensemble Correspondances, under the auspices of the Utrecht Early Music Festival. The venue was the Grote Saal, the main hall of Utrecht's new Tivoli Vredenburg complex. It's an imposing 1,700 seat octagonal space with a high ceiling and a steep rake: the performers were distributed around five sides of the octagon to give clear separation between the groups. The acoustic is lively, to say the least: just 16 singers were more than able to fill the hall with sound.

To be fair, these aren't run of the mill choral singers: each of these voices would have made a credible soloist at any concert of sacred music. One of the altos, Lucile Richardot, has the most extraordinary voice, with power and timbre similar to a male tenor in her lower register, rising to feminine purity at the top of her range without any noticeable transition in between. Much of the joy of the music comes from a high soprano shining through what is inevitably something of a wash of sound in the lower and mid range, and every one of the four sopranos was able to produce the desired effect quite wonderfully. Amongst the instrumentalists, cornettists Adrien Mabire and Benoît Tinturier were able to do the same.

In contrast to the English choral singing tradition of crisp enunciation of the opening consonants of a phrase, the style here was to start a phrase softly and let the music swell into its full power. Sébastien Daucé has his musicians superbly drilled in this: it was as if he had a swell pedal, of the sort used by electric guitarists, which he could just press to get all of the instruments and voices amplifying to the same dynamic contour at the same time. The effect could be stunning, whether starting from all female voices, as in the Gloria, all male, as in Confiteor, or a combination. The opening of the mass had real impact, with all the musicians playing very accurately together, while the the Christe eleison showed exquisite layering of the counterpoint from each choir joining in turn.

The concert was opened by another Charpentier piece, Sub tuum praesidium, which was followed by a series of works by Italian composers of the sort that Charpentier might have met on his travels in Italy in 1665. In the first works, the polychoral nature was made even more clear by distributing the choirs high into the balconies of the hall. However, some pieces fared better than others: an instrumental sonata by Cristoforo Caresana, which opened the second half, was distinctly ragged compared to some of the accurate ensemble that we heard in other parts of the concert. Not being greatly experienced in this repertoire, I struggled to keep track of the the nuances and influences between different composers, but I was able to appreciate wonderful moments: a solid piece of bass singing in Tarquinio Merula's Credidi, long suspended chords in the Et incarnatus of Francesco Beretta's Missa Mirabiles elationes maris, and many more.

This was a concert with singing of exceptional virtuosity, Tivoli Vredenburg made a perfect space in which to hear it, and for nearly all the pieces, Daucé kept admirable control of the high complexity. It was an exceptional experience to close my trip to this year's festival.