Unless you’re actually performing it liturgically, it’s very difficult to know what to do with sacred music these days. The masses of Palestrina, the motets of Byrd, the cantatas of Bach – all seem to merit our attention today, but not for the religious reasons for which they were originally written. Without its original sacred context, however, a Renaissance mass – to take one example – is an extremely strange thing. Sitting back in rapt silence and listening to it straight through, as one does with a Beethoven symphony, is anachronistic to say the least. What, then, is the best way to present this music today?

Robert Hugill introducing FifteenB at St Faith's Church.
Robert Hugill introducing FifteenB at St Faith's Church.

It’s not like I can answer that question, but what attracted me to St Faith’s Church, North Dulwich on Saturday night was a novel attempt at a solution. Robert Hugill’s FifteenB Consort presented Palestrina’s Missa tu es petrus over the course of the whole recital, interspersing it with motets on the Propers of the Feast of St Callixtus – that is, those sacred texts to be read as part of the service on 14 October, the following day. What made this particularly striking was that the motets were remarkably varied in musical style, including pieces by Byrd, Bruckner and Robert Hugill himself. And just for good measure, clarinettist Peter Cigleris was on hand as well to provide a selection of solo clarinet pieces – including Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo, which prompted the choir to work in performances of all three of Stravinsky’s religious choral pieces. Stravinsky’s Credo, in fact, was performed in place of Palestrina’s.

What resulted was a brilliantly varied mixture of music, and a refreshing take on how to structure recitals of sacred music. Though the pieces didn’t all connect as smoothly as might have been hoped, the numerous stylistic shifts kept me on my toes throughout.

FifteenB consort seemed more at home in the modern repertoire they sang – both the Stravinsky pieces and Hugill’s own sounded confident, with an impressively conversational air about the singing perhaps aided by their small numbers – there were just six singers in total. Their rendition of the mass, on the other hand, felt less secure, although it improved steadily throughout the evening and built to an assured Agnus Dei.

Peter Cigleris impressed in his solo pieces, which were just as varied stylistically as the choral music. A showpiece by early clarinettist Anton Stadler, the original soloist for the Mozart concerto, was placed in amongst pieces by Malcolm Arnold, Stravinsky and Paul Harvey, and all were performed with panache – especially the Arnold Fantasia, which deserves to be more widely known. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that the concert’s two interjections of solo clarinet pieces stood out somewhat, not integrating as smoothly as they might have done, and that the lengthy introductions which Cigleris gave to each piece rather disrupted the through-composed concept of the recital.

Most of all, though, this was an inventive and provocative piece of programming – much like the rest of Herne Hill Festival, in fact, which mixes classical, contemporary, jazz and more, and certainly rewards a trip to this lesser-travelled area of South London.