By calling this year’s Choral Pilgrimage tour The Earth Resounds and including excerpts from a piece known as the “Earthquake mass”, Harry Christophers and The Sixteen created an expectation of drama and excitement before they’d sung a single note. The programme was built on the works of Josquin des Prez, Antoine Brumel and Orlando de Lassus, three 16th-century composers who were nominally Flemish, but who all lived a typically cosmopolitan renaissance lifestyle, working as church musicians across continental Europe.

The Sixteen © Molinvisuals
The Sixteen
© Molinvisuals

We began with a motet by Josquin, the oldest of the three. Praeter rerum seriem is scored low in the vocal range for all parts, and with just three women among the sixteen singers on stage, the sound was far darker and richer than we usually expect from The Sixteen. The motet begins with a sonorous bass rumble, a magnificent way to open a concert, and the hypnotic repeated phrases, with sudden little explosions of sound, gave the piece an exciting edge.

Although the other two pieces by Josquin were less extreme in their scoring, there were still some marvellous moments for the basses – a cry from the depths on the word “audi” (“hear”) in O Virgo Prudentissima and a rich, deep final chord in Huc me sydereo. All three Josquin motets had unfamiliar words, and were steeped in rich imagery and a very Roman Catholic sensuousness – a gift to composer and performers, and The Sixteen made the most of these vivid texts. If I have ever had any complaint about this choir, it is that they sometimes seem too cool and detached from their music, but this was never the case this evening – they sang with passion and conviction.

As is his custom, Harry Christophers had given careful consideration to the artwork he chose for this year’s Choral Pilgrimage, in this case Bruegel’s famous painting of the Tower of Babel. In his pre-concert talk and programme notes, he linked the painting to the building boom that was going on in the Flemish city Antwerp at the time these composers were working, when trade was making it one of the largest and fastest-growing cities in Europe, and he compared the grandiose scale of their music to the ambitions of the Flemish builders. This sense of architectural greatness was at its clearest in the two movements from Brumel’s Missa Et ecce terraemotus, a twelve-part mass written for Easter, and based on the plainchant antiphon that describes the earthquake when the angel rolled away the stone of Christ’s tomb. This was densely textured music, and listening to it is just like looking at a great cathedral, or Bruegel’s painting; you can stand back and enjoy the whole effect, or zoom in on details. The Sixteen sang the Gloria and Sanctus with panache, and evident enjoyment, although occasionally their enthusiasm led to a loss of blend, with one or two voices becoming too prominent. Now augmented to twenty voices, the choir created a wave of sound that was perfectly suited to the vast space inside Durham Cathedral.

Orlando de Lassus was quite a bit younger than Brumel or Josquin, but clearly had a great respect for music of the past; more than might have been expected of composers in a forward-looking age of innovation. He was known to have performed Missa Et ecce terraemotus at the chapel of the Bavarian court, and he took Josquin’s Praeter rerum seriem as the basis for a lively setting of the Magnificat. Both pieces pivoted around a long monotonic phrase that passed among the parts, and this came out more prominently in the Lassus, creating an exciting tension against the florid polyphony.

The sense I had that the singers had thought more deeply than usual about the texts really came through in Lassus’ Timor et tremor and despite the drama of the Brumel, this little piece was, for me, the most effective. The words speak of fear and trembling until the lost soul finds refuge with God, and the piece began quietly, with delicious chromatic colour and unstable harmonies, then finding confidence and security with the words “the Lord is my refuge”. Aurora lucis rutilat was also very effective, with Harry Christophers avoiding the temptation to overdramatize the passages describing the torments of hell. The delicate singing later in this motet was a nice contrast to the more muscular music that formed most of tonight’s concert.

Today, these three composers lack popularity and fame that they enjoyed in their own lifetimes, but it is testament to the reputation of The Sixteen that people will turn out and fill cathedrals and churches across the country to hear ninety minutes of intellectually demanding renaissance polyphony by slightly obscure composers. The earth did indeed resound; it was a thrilling programme, delivered with great spirit.