Corpus Christi Church offers a pleasurable liturgical mix

Mon Feb 13, 2017 at 11:58 am
James Bassi led the Choir of Corpus Christi Church Sunday afternoon. Photo: Jiyang Chen

James Bassi led the Choir of Corpus Christi Church Sunday afternoon. Photo: Jiyang Chen

Corpus Christi Church in Morningside Heights is the main host for the Music Before 1800 series of concerts. Sunday afternoon, the church itself was the feature, as the concert with a performance by the Choir of Corpus Christi.

The choir’s director for the concert, James Bassi, put together a program of music from English Renaissance composers. All of the pieces were liturgical, and the concert had a couple of twists; one was the way Bassi used sections from different composers to complete a full-sung mass, and the other was that the choir performed the world premiere of a piece by Bassi himself.

The music from before 1800 came from Byrd, Tallis, Taverner, and the lesser known but notable composers Robert Fayrfax, Christopher Tye, and John Nesbett. Each segment of the performance, excepting the premiere, paired two pieces from each composer; a motet and a part of the mass. At the end, as something of a coda, the choir sang Nesbett’s Magnificat and Tallis’ Nun Dimittis together.

So this was a mass made by five composers. In no way a pastiche, or even a quilt, the style of the era meant that the sections—a Kyrie from Byrd, the Sanctus and Benedictus from Fayrfax—blended easily. But the result also played up the fascinating individual qualities among composers who, heard solely through large scale pieces, can be hard to differentiate.

That was one of the key pleasures of the concert, and of the Music Before 1800 concept as a whole. Early music is generally qualified by form and national style. The great names made great music, but even the experienced, interested ear can have trouble telling Tallis from Taverner, solely by the sound of the music. Combined, though, it was easy to hear Tallis’ cascading polyphony against Taverner’s stark and lovely counterpoint, and the complexity and abstraction of Fayrfax and Tye in contrast with Byrd’s earthy sincerity.

The singing made this work. The Choir of Corpus Christi Church has a non-homogenized sound, with particularly vivid colors in the tenors and sopranos. They sang with clear articulation and refined dynamics—they made the interior details easy to hear and enhanced the variety of the composers. Though the sopranos showed some fatigue at times, and there were a couple of nerve-wracking cadences, the ensemble closed strongly with the paired Nesbett and Tallis pieces.

In terms of style, Bassi’s Motet: Ave Verum Corpus, made a good companion to the earlier music without sacrificing any 21st century character. Composers are still writing sacred music, and great ones like Pärt are still using the principals of Renaissance counterpoint, as Bassi did in his Motet (commissioned by Music Before 1800). His counterpoint was clear, rigorous, and interesting, and the music judiciously maneuvered between shimmering seventh chords. That rich sound, and the solid, even rhythms, made for a fine update to this ancient art.

Music Before 1800 presents Cuban early music ensemble Ars Longa 4 p.m. February 26 at Corpus Christi Church.

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