REVIEW: Brighton Early Music Festival pre-Christmas choral event

Review by Richard Amey

BREMF Consort of Voices
BREMF Consort of Voices

Mystery, Transformation and Celebration: Brighton Early Music Festival pre-Christmas choral event of Renaissance Music at St Paul’s Church, Brighton on Saturday 7 December 2019 (6pm).

BREMF Consort of Voices, director Deborah Roberts, a cappella. Sopranos: Liz Kelly, Pam Mason, Maria Burch, Bibi Lees, Zofia Reeve. Altos: Janet Gascoine, Silvia Reseghetti. Tenors: Nick Boston, Peter Larcombe, Graeme Smith. Baritones: Jeff Coventry-Fenn, Tony Jay, Stephen Wilmot. Basses: John Gillies, Reuben James, Jason Jeffries, Maurice Shipley.

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If the festival of Christmas is intended to combat the cold with an atmosphere and message to warm, then its music was sent to work successfully in chilly St Paul’s. Not secular stuff destined to submerge beneath modern excess in centrally-heated buildings but settings of devotional Latin, to be conveyed within architecture of sober stone and hard wood, but artistically dressed in alluring and enveloping harmony and counterpoint.

Deborah Roberts conducted in fingerless gloves. Only the youngest, most strapping of her fine choir survived in bare shirts, and the audience stayed in coats as the BREMF Consort of Voices unfurled the manuscripts of 11 settings of 16th Century Christmas supplication and praise from western European composers of north and south, and of one anonymously seeking salvation in a time and place 100 years earlier.

Born to fit BREMF’s 2019 theme of metamorphosis, the Consort’s selection of music traced the human transition in perception from initial wonder and awe at the mystery of the nativity to spiritual liberation at the realisation and understanding of its message.

Roberts laid out her choir in various standing formations according to the scoring of each item and the size of vocal forces required – this to achieve an ideal projective effect and acoustic result. Something also handy to retain the attention of the audience. Other choirs might have remained steadfastly in situ and created a statuesquely soporific spectacle.

But here unrequired personnel left the stage for certain items, female voices were sometimes clustered while the men were spread, sometimes the females were split left and right for antiphonal or harmonic effect. Twice pieces were sung by reduced numbers from the rear of the church behind the audience’s backs, to emphasise sound by removing the visual.

Orlando Lassus (Alma redemptoris nater) appealed to mother Mary for mercy and straightway the Consort warmed the listener sonically and thermally. Jacob Handl (O magnum mysterium) introduced the animal and rustic witnesses in chuckling rhythm but then his Mirabile mysterium (‘nature is transformed, God is made man’) deepened the complexion of everything with its jumps and sidesteps into different keys.

Thus altered in only minutes, our new condition was consolidated by the sublime Spaniard Victoria’s own considered O magnum mysterium, with its Alleluia in joybringing triple time, and subsequently his Sanctus and Agnus Dei on the same text. If Handl’s had sounded like a shepherd’s reaction, Victoria’s seemed the thoughts of Joseph.

The aforementioned century backleap (Anonymous – Conditor alme Siderum) acted as reminder of contemplative earlier plainsong, as it appealed to the creator of the stars and the everlasting light of the people. But then, in another Mirabile mysterium, continuing this present liquidity of expression, Adrian Willaert (who died this very concert day 457 years ago) instead of circuitously returning us back home, chromatically reflected the extra dimension within the text. The Consort subtly and fluently carried us to a new viewpoint and comprehension.

In this Willaert and previously the Handl, the Consort deftly and securely handled the aural shifting, disorientation and fresh alignment. Willaert transported this elaborated style from the Low Countries southwards to enrich Italian Renaissance music and there Deborah Roberts took us to meet one of Willaert’s Venetian successors and beneficiaries – Giovanni Gabrieli the son.

His celebrated O magnum mysterium, with its cross-rhythmed alleluias and big finish both promised us the new freedom to celebrate come the concert second half, and when repeated as a final encore, the piece reaffirmed the vibrancy of Christmas joy.

After an interval of very British mulled wine and mince pies, Willaerts (Praeter rerum Serium) reappeared to take us further afield, emphasising musically the smoothness of the virgin birth in defying the norm. Then Melchoir Franck with the same text suddenly lifted the voices higher than hitherto, and took us from elaborate catholic to the more direct protestant chorale style in that Franck, in reverse to Willaerts, took back from Venice to Germany. That uplift brought spontaneous applause.

Italian composers readily responded to the shepherds’ personified meeting of earth with heaven come down, and Giovanni Bassano (Quem vidistis pastores?), in asking them what they had seen in the fields and stable, got the rhythmical joymaking underway. Adrian Banchieri (Angelus ad pastories ait) asks the shepherds what the angels told them and his choral answering Noels sounded direct cousins to those of the now more famous Hodie of Sweelinck, his Dutch contemporary.

Andrea Gabrieli the father (same text) vibrantlyconcluded the entire evening’s sequence whose effect was more than just scholarly, but characteristically devised by Roberts with the wider qualities within choral early music which she brings to BREMF as its co-founder and artistic director. It was the kind of nourishing and revisionary preparation for real Christmas that music lovers seek earlier in December than the mass media has time for.

Richard Amey

Roberts’ partner, a Consort bass Maurice Shipsey, is a GP with Multiple Sclerosis. He sang with a crutch, and there was a retiring collection for the work of Southwick’s Sussex MS Centre.