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Palestrina & Will Todd “Radical Masses”

Vasari Singers – cond Jeremy Backhouse

St Martin-in-the-Fields, London – 26 September 2006


Palestrina – Missa Papae Marcelli


Will Todd – Mass in Blue

With the Will Todd Trio and Bethany Halliday – soprano


Radical Masses - the title of this concert immediately brought to my mind adjectives such as “extremist”, “fanatic”, “revolutionary”, but a quick check with the OED revealed that the primary meaning of “radical” is in fact “pertaining to the root of the matter”.


Having heard the concert, I realise nowhow clever a title it is, since it presented two compositions at the advanced edge for church music of their times and yet which remain absolutely true to the fundamental essence of the latin mass.


Palestrina was working just at the time when the ruling body of the church was struggling against the advancing tide of polyphony, which threatened to swamp liturgical text with an overwhelming brilliance of sound. Pope Marcellus II (whose pontificate lasted for a mere three weeks) was at the head of this reactionary movement which inspired, or perhaps goaded, Palestrina to produce this polyphonic mass in which the meaning of the text is clearly reflected in the music and the words stand out with perfect clarity.


The Vasari Singers captured the full measure of this combination, held in complete control by conductor Jeremy Backhouse. The Credo was the high point , capturing every nuance and detail with total accuracy and then letting go in a joyous surge of polyphony in the concluding Amen.


In Will Todd's Mass in Blue draws on a jazz idiom, but again the underlying firmament is liturgically solid. I had already reviewed its CD recording, but the sound balance in this live performance was rather different, with the trio and soprano soloist more to the fore. Bethany Halliday, a classically trained lyric soprano, gave it her all, crooning into a microphone in true blues style.


There was also a real feeling of tension and excitement – this was a work that the players and singers wanted to perform – and their enthusiasm spread to the audience where a good many of us were just itching to get up on the platform and join in.


An evening to remember, in the gentle candlelit ambience of St Martin 's, with its fine acoustics for voices.


Serena Fenwick