O Magnum Mysterium  


16th December 2011

Parish Church of St John, Wellington

Spanish and Portuguese Renaissance polyphony for Advent & Christmas

Mystery and Beauty - Review submitted by Harold Mead 18/12/2011

The music of the 16th century is for many a closed book, but Peter Leech and the Collegium Singers turned its pages for an appreciative audience in Wellington Church last Friday in their Christmas concert ‘O Magnum Mysterium’.  The evening was built around that responsorial chant from the Matins of Christmas, and settings of it by Victoria, Morales and Morago were included in the programme.

Now expected from Collegium, the concert opened with a processional of great beauty, Victoria’s ‘Conditor Alma Siderum’. Not the easiest of works to sing while moving, the ensemble took a little while to settle down, but as the evening proceeded the choir’s richness of sound and careful attention to dynamics and balance came to the fore.  Many of the items were presented not using the full choir, but by quartets and octets drawn from the members.  This strategy paid off for the most part, although being so exposed brought some nervousness in places!  The octet ‘Verbum Caro’ by Loyset Compere was truly lovely, with fine ensemble and a rich balanced sound.

Peter enlivened the proceedings with some fine solo drumming, firstly in an anonymous Spanish setting of the same ‘Verbum Caro’.  The choir didn’t quite respond with the same spiritedness, but when he whacked the drum again later in a Portuguese piece celebrating Christ’s birth there was much more life and verve in the singing.

Very cleverly, the entire Mass by Victoria based on the ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ was performed not as a single ‘lump’, but spread across the programme interspersed with the other items.  The Credo  and the Agnus Dei in particular showed the choir at its best, with fine interaction between the parts and a solid and rich texture to the sound.  The final piece was Victoria’s ‘Lucis Creator Optime’.  In the chants the closeness of the vocal blend was striking, but equally in the responses the clear separation and clarity of the harmonies was very fine.

This was an evening which required concentration by the audience, but judging by the applause, Peter and Collegium succeeded in their goal of revealing musical beauty which is not as widely known and appreciated as it might be.