In good voice for a clash of the Titans

Alan Eost, music director of Sheffield Oratorio Chorus
Alan Eost, music director of Sheffield Oratorio Chorus

OUR two biggest choral groups, in terms of membership numbers, clash this Saturday when the Oratorio Chorus give voice to Renaissance music at Sheffield Cathedral and the Philharmonic Chorus lend theirs to Fauré at the City Hall.

There is perhaps little need to dwell unduly on the latter, chiefly the French composer’s widely familiar Requiem setting, but lingering on choral music stemming from the second half of 16th century is maybe called for.

The Oratorio Chorus’s concert is being plugged as an opportunity to hear some of the finest from a golden period of unaccompanied choral writing,

Alan Eost, the choir’s music director, says: “The centrepiece is the Mass, O Quam Gloriosum est Regnum by the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria – ‘God’s own composer’ and an icon of Renaissance choral music.

“We will be performing it antiphonally in an enhanced presentation which includes organ music and mediaeval plainchant.”

Meaning, music relating to the liturgy of the Mass between the five parts of the ‘Ordinary’ – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei – that Victoria set, as would have happened in his time and long after.

The Mass (1585) derives from Victoria’s “radiant four-part motet” of the same name penned for All Souls Day in 1572, which also gets an outing and celebrates the joy of life in the hereafter.

Victoria (1548-1611) and Palestrina (1525-94) are generally recognised as the giants of Renaissance choral music, but Lassus, Tallis and Byrd have slowly crept into the equation to create a ‘mighty handful’. The Spanish composer’s style was influenced by Palestrina, with whom he studied in Rome between 1565 and 1587, but his music is less beholden to rigid rules, is freer and more direct emotionally than the Italian’s for whom refinement and perfection was the be-all and end-all.

Naturally, he gets into the concert with a motet, Sicut Servus – “for many people the outstanding example of choral work in the entire 16th century.”

As does Tallis (c1505-85) with Lamentations of Jeremiah – “wonderful melodies… and unique for its wealth of invention and expressive intensity” – the Old Testament book of Lamentations being a popular source of inspiration for Renaissance composers: Victoria, Palestrina, Lassus and Byrd were among those who set selected texts from it.

Works by two less familiar names, although historically important composers ,make up the concert.

Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612), who spent just over a year in Italy in the mid-1580s and took the emergent Baroque style back North across the Alps, is represented by a motet, Dixit Maria ad Angelum from 1591 – he is regarded as one of the most important German composers of all time.

Lodovico Viadana (c1560-1627), “a composer known for his freshness, vitality, expressive melodies and simple text settings,” also has a motet being performed, Exsultate justi.

Viadana, a Franciscan friar – Victoria was an ordained priest! – whose family name was Grossi but like Palestrina adopted the name of the town he was born in as his surname, is particularly renowned as the first composer to make extensive use of the omnipresent Baroque music fixture, bass continuo.

Back at the City Hall we move forward 300 years to music by Fauré and Tchaikovsky, the latter’s purely instrumental, initially Mozart-inspired, four-movement Serenade for Strings with its famous Valse (waltz) providing a sunny start to the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus concert.

The Fauré Requiem will presumably be performed in its second version from 1889 with chamber orchestra as the Manchester Camerata is sharing the stage with the Phil.

It was lost at some point, probably some time after the full orchestra version appeared in 1900, until John Rutter rediscovered it in Paris in the early 1980s.

The work’s enormous popularity is actually posthumous.

It wasn’t heard in this country for the first time until 1936 and music college students gave its American premiere in 1931.

Fauré’s much earlier choral work, the equally serene Cantique de Jean Racine, which can be said to gained the circulation it has on the back of the Requiem’s popularity, is also performed at the concert in Rutter’s arrangement with strings and harp.

Singing the most famous extract from Fauré’s Requiem, Pie Jesu, is Sheffield’s current BBC Chorister of the Year, Ella Taylor.