Cappella Romana turns to England

By Philippa Kiraly

As a rule we expect Cappella Romana to enlighten and enthrall us with music of the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches from the Middle Ages to the present day. For its first concert of this season, it turned to the English church choral tradition of the Renaissance in a fascinating, moving performance directed by a guest conductor from England, Guy Protheroe.

Choosing Holy Rosary Church in West Seattle for the venue Saturday night, a place where the choir has sung before, gave the requisite reverberation to allow the music to bloom, though it made words very hard to distinguish.

The core of the program was John Sheppard’s “Media Vita” (“In the midst of life we are in death”) very appropos for September 11th. Composed in the mid-16th century, this and the last work on the program, a “Magnificat” written by William Cornysh around the beginning of that century, are works which leave a healthy respect for the abilities of church singers at that time. Sophisticated, ornamented, complex, at times dissonant, and requiring not just technical virtuosity but a range of well over three octaves, these works and others on the program took all the strengths of a superb choir to bring off.

Cathedral choirs were nothing new in England then. Sacred music requiring good singers had begun in Europe as early as the fourth century, and the first training for choirboys not much later. However for many hundreds of years, it was sung by small groups of soloists. Women of course could only sing in nunneries. By the time of this program, every cathedral in England had its group of highly trained solo singers as well as others less virtuosic, hence the practice of having small solo groups performing more florid and difficult sections alternating with the larger group. The choirs were still small, maybe twelve men and six boys, with the men usually taking all but the soprano roles.

Although much of the music on this program—the rest being “O bone Jesu” and “Ave Maria” by Robert Parsons (1535-c1571), “Stabat mater” and “Jesu, mercy” by John Browne (fl.c1490), and Cornysh’s “Woefully arrayed”—was of sorrow and grief, the English style is not one of let-it-all-hang-out emotion. Quite the contrary. None of this was in a noticeably minor mode, and even the saddest moments were indicated more by nuance than overt expression. The music also moves in an unhurried polyphony within which are melismatic and ornamented moments. There is nothing dull about it.

The twelve singers of Cappella Romana, including women with boy-soprano voices and one rare boy-voiced alto, achieved the characteristic pure sound and the transparent interweaving of the polyphonic lines, creating an equally characteristic serenity as the sound soared up into the rafters and surrounded the listeners.

The transparency means that anything less than perfect is noticeable, and occasionally one singer or another would fumble an ornament slightly and in the second half, one tenor sang more emphatically than the others where no singer is supposed to stick out. These were very small quibbles. The whole was a joy to hear.

As an encore, in memory of 9/11, the choir sang John Tavener’s ravishing “Song for Athene” an exquisite requiem for a young Greek woman who died in an accident in the early 1990s and made famous by its use at Princess Diana’s funeral. Though written nearly 500 years later than the body of the program, it fitted seamlessly into the genre to which we had been listening, an English choral tradition of around a thousand years.

Note: Nearly sixty years ago, this writer sang for a year in the choir of St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. (Being Presbyterian, it used women rather than boys.) We sang much music of this era, and to hear again it was like coming home.

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