The first couple of items on the programme were sung in the antechapel which stands at 90 degrees to the chapel, presumably so as to give audience members seated there a chance actually to see the four Liedertafel and 18 + four Pro Victoria singers who were otherwise invisible to them for the rest of the programme, just as they were for the opening numbers to those of us in the chapel. I thought it a pity that this venue, with its awkward T-shaped space, was hosting for the recital when so many of the other University chapels offer a superior listening and viewing experience; for after all, music is a visual as well as an aural art form.
We began with Schubert's Des Menschen Seele, the composer's pantheistic setting of an extended poem by Goethe, then on to Thomas Tallis' Videte miraculum, a six-part Advent motet. Tallis arranged the words in such a way as to create a mood of calm and stillness from which the singers could approach the audience. It is tempting to use the word 'congregation' because, for all that this was not a religious occasion, it was certainly an intent gathering. This piece was, for me, possibly the highlight of the recital, sung with such smoothness and control. But there is a danger that its ilk may become a wave of sound within which it is difficult for the listener to distinguish texture and detail. Conductor Duncan Saunderson throughout surmounted that problem by using his singers in different groupings.
When the choir moved into the chapel proper it took its place before the altar and gave us Berlioz's L'Adieu des Bergers, the best-known element of his L'Enfance du Christ oratorio based on the Holy Family's Flight into
Palestrina's Missa Brevis from 1570 was the other highlight of the first part of the concert and the weightiest of the Oxford Liedertafel offerings, though here shorn of its Credo, presumably from a desire to pack a couple of other pieces into the programme. Palestrina wrote 104 settings of the Mass, and his oeuvre is often held to be the culmination of Renaissance polyphony. Our four singers had the challenge of the frequent tempo changes, governed by the shifting significance of the text, and I think the composer is here interested more in feeling of phrase than of beat and rhythm. Perhaps the unity of form which strikes the hearer reflects the conviction that Palestrina possessed in his Catholic faith. The ascending scale at the beginning of the first Agnus Dei and its inversion for the second were delightfully handled.
It seems invidious to single out individuals, but I especially enjoyed Stephen Burrows' counter tenor voice, pure and plangent, and hearing him made me regret that in the brace of Messiahs I heard before Christmas the solo alto parts had not been taken by a – or, better still, this – counter-tenor
The chapel was alight with 48 candles, supplemented by four arc lights illuminating the singers, the light casting a warm glow that softened the oak forming both the panelling behind the choir stalls and also the roof. The choir and conductor were backed by the mass of the east window, bursting with extraordinarily busy scenes from the New Testament by Bernard van Linge, including a disappointingly-handled Jonah and the Whale, the latter looking more like an apologetic cod than Leviathan.
The programme continued with Francisco Guerrero's Ave virgo sanctissima for choir, the soprano parts echoing each other at an interval, and then via two short Schubert pieces from the Liedertafel, the latter of which, Die Enfernten, with its lilting rhythm could almost have come from a light opera. Before the final Palestrina Hodie Christus natus est we heard three carols; the Czech Rocking Carol, arranged by Sir David Willcocks being especially attractive. We poured at last onto the streets beyond Wadham; they still, we buzzing from Palestrina's extroverted bursts of harmony.