Music from the Court of Heaven

Saturday 15th January 2022
St Peter ad Vincula, Coggeshall

For an hour one Saturday afternoon (January 15th) a near-capacity audience in St Peter’s was transported as if to heaven itself by a programme of sacred music given by the excellent Colchester Chamber Choir, under their distinguished director Roderick Earle. It was their first concert after almost two years of Covid-enforced inactivity, and what a remarkable comeback it was! If they have not yet quite regained the assured virtuosity of their pre-pandemic performances, they are certainly well on the way. It was especially pleasing to note the number of younger singers in the choir, particularly some fine voices in the tenor section; many choirs would be green with envy.
The programme was a demanding one, consisting of music from 16th and 17th _ century France and Italy, much of it in up to eight parts, and performed here entirely without accompaniment. This music is intended to inspire worshippers to deeper devotion and to give a glimpse, a foretaste even, of heaven. The Counter-Reformation was at its zenith, and its sacred music often burns with the zeal and intensity of the Catholic Church’s mission to bring all back into its fold. The dominating figure here was Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) who was represented by excerpts from two of his Masses, from 1610 and 1650 respectively, the former being from the folio he submitted to St Mark’s, Venice, along with his celebrated Vespers, when he applied successfully for the post of Maestro di Capella. These, and his well-known Cantate Domino (O sing unto the Lord), typified the new restless, dramatic style that had begun to pervade early 17th_ century music. By contrast, the opening items by Jean Mouton (1459-1522) and Clemens non Papa (1510-1555) – the latter’s nickname allegedly intended to distinguish him from Pope Clement VII – were examples of an earlier style, rather more placid in character.
The music of Carlo Gesualdo (1566- 1613) exemplifies to an extreme the revolutionary stile moderno of his generation. The two Marian motets sung here are far from straightforward; they require very secure intonation for their sudden eccentric key-changes, a wide range of dynamics and tone-colour and the ability to master their unpredictable, dramatic mood-swings. The choir was really getting into its stride by this point, and the contrast with the less demonstrative style of the two earlier pieces was quite striking.
For this listener, however, the finest performances came in the final group of motets by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), a Spanish priest who lived and worked in Rome. All three pieces were devotions to Our Lady, their eight-part textures offering the composer wonderful opportunities for dramatic contrasts between separate groups, and a rich tapestry of varied tone-colours. The devotional fervour characteristic of its composer came over vividly, as did the sheer vivacity and energy of the triple-time Alleluias that punctuated and concluded the final Regina caeli laetare (Queen of heaven, rejoice).
Colchester Chamber Choir will return to St Peter’s on 7th May. Their programme has yet to be decided. But whatever they choose to offer, we can be sure that we will be given a stimulating and enjoyable concert, and we are grateful to them for bringing to Coggeshall such devotional and cultural riches.

Michael Frith