The Sixteen / Harry Christophers

Philip & Mary: A Marriage of England & Spain

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The Sixteen, a mixed choir with powerful women's voices, doesn't offer passage into a Renaissance soundworld in the way that a choir with really well-trained boy singers can do. But they've been exceptionally successful with Renaissance and Baroque choral releases that mix sensuously beautiful singing with compelling presentation of the music. This disc offers a good example, and a fine starting place for anyone interested in the a cappella choral music of the Renaissance and how it was used. The title is a little deceptive -- the disc does not reconstruct music for the wedding of King Philip of Spain and Mary Tudor, but for a 1554 Christmas mass soon after their wedding, when Mary was thought to be pregnant with a potential heir to the English throne. The music that was actually performed is unknown, but director Harry Christophers selects a mix of English and Spanish pieces that refers to childbirth, kings, and other appropriate themes. The result is that the listener, with the concrete scene of this Christmas ceremony as something to hang on to, can readily grasp how Renaissance pieces differ from one another stylistically, and how they mixed abstract musical principles with signs that were very much bound up with worldly power.

Another benefit of this concept is that it gives Christophers an excuse to unearth a mighty torso of a work -- the Missa Puer Natus of Thomas Tallis, which is thought to have been written for this very ceremony but which has been partly lost. It's a massive, luxuriant, seven-part piece, something of a less-dense cousin to the 40-part motet Spem in alium. "On paper," notes Christophers, "it seems almost static, but in performance it comes over as a sublime work capable of extreme interpretation." The intense waves of sound Christophers creates with his virtuoso singers are perhaps extreme, but the work does, as he says, stand up to them. Works by John Sheppard, Francisco Guerrero, and Flemish-Spanish composer Pierre de Manchicourt are no less exciting, and the sound engineering is top-notch. A superb Renaissance release, with a sumptuousness appropriate to its subject.

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