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Concert at London Oratory 17 September 2010

September 20, 2010

On Friday 17 September 2010 at 7pm a concert “Sacred Masterpieces from Renaissance Rome” was given at the London Oratory. The performers were the Choir of the London Oratory conducted by Patrick Russill, with solo organ music performed by John McGreal. The concert is part of the celebrations surrounding the Papal Visit and was organised in partnership with the V&A Museum who are displaying the Raphael Cartoons and Tapestries, the cartoons having been lent by the Vatican to the V&A for the occasion. The tapestries were commissioned in 1515 by Pope Leo X for the Sistine Chapel and the cartoons, paintings from which the tapestries were made, are permanently on exhibition in the V&A. It was possible, at the price of only a slightly more expensive ticket, to have the option of a viewing of the cartoons and tapestries displayed together in the V&A as well as attending the concert.

The concert consisted of two musical genres: religious vocal music sung a capella and solo organ music. The concert began with music by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594): two movements from Missa Papae Marcelli followed by two motets, Super flumina Babylonis and one of his most famous works, Tu es Petrus. There were four pieces by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611): Vidi speciosam, O sacrum convivium, Laetatus sum and Ave Maria. The concert ended with Adoramus te Christe by Giovanni Maria Nanino (c.1543-1607) and Christus resurgens by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652). The vocal music was interspersed with organ solos by Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), Giovanni de Macque (?1548-1611) and Michelangelo Rossi (1601/2-1656). There was a stylistic contrast between the organ solos and the vocal music as the organ music could all be classed as baroque, not only in date but in style.

The attractive concert programme (which has illustrations from the Raphael cartoons) points out that “The Choir of the London Oratory is England’s senior professional Catholic choir, serving the liturgical selebrations of the Roman Rite for which the London Oratory has been famous every since it moved to its present Brompton Road site in 1854.” The choir’s conductor, Patrick Russill, as well as being Director of Music of the London Oratory is professor of organ and Head of Choral Conducting at the Royal Academy of Music. So given the credentials of the performers it is hardly surprising that the vocal music was given a virtually faultless performance. It was particularly impressive to hear music by Palestrina and Victoria in the sumptuous setting of the neo-baroque London Oratory where the acoustic is perfect for this kind of music. The architecture of every piece was perfectly articulated and there was a controlled passion about, particularly, Palestrina’s Super flumina Babylonis and the pieces by Victoria. The pieces were in general an excellent summary of the music ideals of the Counter-Reformation.

The organ pieces performed by John McGreal were mostly improvisatory in nature and therefore lacked the cerebral architecture of the vocal music. Consonante stravaganti by Giovanni de Macque ( a composer new to me) was a short piece with a few Messiaen-like moments that resolved its brief chromatic meditation on a major chord. Frescobaldi’s Toccata per le Levatione had some unusual rhythms in the middle parts and his Ricercar con obligo di cantare la quinta parte was particularly effective. The title of this piece indicates an optional vocal part, which was performed on this occasion. So we had an organ piece where a tenor voice entered occasionally with short phrases, something in the manner of a JS Bach accompanied chorale. The result was quite expressive, especially since neither the singer nor the organisat were visible to the audience (at least, from where I was sitting). Michelangelo Rossi is a composer I knew previously only from his vocal works so it was interesting to hear organ music by him. The programme note describes his piece Toccata settima as “a sensational exercise in chromaticism and the unexpected”, which was indeed accurate. The harmonic world explored was more complex that I have previously heard in Rossi’s music, so this was an especially interesting piece. McGreal at one point used a striking vibrato effect, a testimony to the inventiveness of the baroque virtuosos represented in the concert.

The concert was listened to very attentively by a large audience who respected the request not to applaud until the concert was over. The London Oratory was full. The copy of the statue of St Peter from an original in St Peter’s, Rome, was, presumably in honour of the Papal Visit, dressed in robes and wore an elaborate crown.

As this concert took place at such an historic point it is appropriate to say a few more words about its context.  The main reason for the current Papal Visit is the beatification of John Henry Newman, one of the main figures in the High Church movement in nineteenth-century Anglicanism and later a convert to Roman Catholicism. Newman became a Roman Catholic in 1847. Many music-lovers may know Newman as the author of The Dream of Gerontius, the poem set to music by Elgar in his famous oratorio. In 1849 Cardinal Newman founded the English Oratory of St. Philip Neri (London Oratory, or Brompton Oratory as it is more colloquially known) and brought to England a religious movement originally founded by St. Philip Neri in sixteenth-century Rome. The Oration movement begun by Neri has an important place in the history of music as it gave birth to the oratorio.

Cardinal Newman, statue at London Oratory

Statue of Cardinal Newman, London Oratory, photo B Mitchell, 2010.

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