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  • Writer's pictureSteve Crowther

Concert review: University of York Choir, The 24 and The City Musick

Reining in the Donkey. In the programme notes about Orazio Benevoli’s mass, Missa Si Deus pro nobis, Hugh Keyte* says:

“One extraordinary technique was peculiar to the Roman Colossal Baroque, and there are two full-blown examples in the mass. Towards the end of the Gloria at the words 'in gloria Dei Patris' all four soprano parts combine in laser beam unison with a long, high, slowly unwinding plainchant cantus firmus, while beneath them the lower parts toss urgent phrases from one choir to another. Near the end of the Credo is a companion passage in which the combined bass parts have the (unidentified) cantus firmus and the upper voices are in tumult. In each case, the effect is highly dramatic, with the excitement rising inexorably till full forces combine in a mighty tutti.

Unknown to the clergy, this much-admired technique also functioned as a subversive musical joke. Composers secretly referred to it as 'reining in the mule' (tenere la mula). Well-fed cardinals struggling to restrain their run-away jennies must have been a common sight in baroque Rome, and performers relished the notion that they were representing this in sound: the frantic antiphonal parts were the bolting steed, the extended plainchant the rider's restraining reins, the eventual tutti (perhaps) the mutinous mule brought to a clattering stand-still amid public applause. Mules were still being musically reined in when the young Handel was resident in Rome in the early 1700s, and we can hear what must be a distant (and entirely serious) echo of the technique in the 'King of kings and Lord of lords' section of his Hallelujah chorus.”

*Hugh Keyte was the early music producer at the BBC in the late 1970's and early 1980's, whose ambitious series marked a golden age of BBC programming.

University of York Choir, The 24 and The City Musick, Central Hall, Saturday 18 March

Well, this looked interesting, but then any concert with a strapline ‘Reining in the Donkey’ and curated and conducted by Robert Hollingworth would be. The concert was a highly imaginative programme focusing on Orazio Benevoli’s mass, Missa Si Deus pro nobis, dovetailed with music by Andrea Gabrieli, Vincenzo Ugolino, Palestrina, and Frescobaldi. The mass was written for eight choirs supported by fifteen continuo instrumentalists. These would be placed in stalls above and around the congregation thus setting up a dramatic, sumptuous surround-sound extravaganza. In York Minster this would have been a real musical event, but in the Central Hall, with an acoustic as dry as sandpaper, it wasn’t. And nor could it have been. Right from the choral opening of Vincenzo Ugolino’s Quae est ista,the Choir sounded cruelly exposed and vulnerable. With all the forces at play, the singers grew in confidence through the Kyrie and Gloria of the Benevoli Mass. The choral exchanges of the lovey suspended sequences in the Credo worked well. The introduction of the amazing contrabass shawm, played by Nicholas Perry, was quite an experience. I thought it sounded like a musical equivalent of the butler Lurch from the Addams Family but is probably best described by Paul McCreesh as ‘the finest fartophone in all music’. Not all the choral detail was in place, the rhythmic passages in the Credo, for example, were not as crisp or accurate as they should have been, but the extensive tutti sections at the end of each of the movements were confident and satisfying. Indeed, the Agnus Dei conclusion was luxurious, quite delightful. The instrumental movements performed by The City Musick players were, obviously, imperious. Catherine Pierron’s chamber organ performance of Frescobaldi’s Toccata no.3, weaving webs of magical tapestry, was breathtaking. There was also a wonderful, confident Agnus Dei by Palestrina (arr. Francesco Soriano) sung by The 24, a choir clearly at the top of their game, with crystal-clear part singing throughout. Very impressive. Anyway, back to the donkey. The technique is a musical joke where busy antiphonal exchanges (runaway, out of control donkeys) combined with long plainchant melodies (hapless, possibly fat, cardinals pulling on the reins). Excellent. I get the impression that Orazio Benevoli’s Missa Si Deus pro nobis is not only a hidden gem, but now a discovered masterpiece. I would love to hear Robert Hollingworth curate and direct another performance. But not here, not at the Central Hall. Please.

The review is published at

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