WORKS: Episode 1: The Gothic Revelation; Episode 2: Palestrina and The Popes; Episode 3: Tallis, Byrd and The Tudors; Episode 4: Bach and The Lutheran Legacy
PERFORMER: Simon Russell Beale, Harry Christophers; The Sixteen
CATALOGUE NO: CORO COR 16078 (NTSC system; PCM Stereo; 16:9 picture format)
As titles go Sacred Music is not exactly straining at the leash when it comes to eye-arresting marketing. But anyone assuming that presenter Simon Russell Beale was merely a ‘name’ parachuted in to generate wider appeal couldn’t be further from the truth.
A former St Paul’s Cathedral chorister, the actor’s enthusiasm for the project is tempered by a knowledge which enables him to gently ‘translate’ when a technicality threatens to pass over lay heads, and a palpable excitement and humility in the presence of Palestrina manuscripts, or the young William Byrd’s florid signature in a Lincoln ledger.
His is a knowledge that thirsts to know more, and in four generously-populated episodes, with backup from Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, he gets to grips with the birth of Gothic polyphony in the School of Notre Dame; follows the contrapuntal trail to Palestrina’s Rome; journeys homewards to explore Tallis and Byrd besieged by Tudor religious turmoil; and finally fetches up in Protestant Germany tracing a line from Luther to Bach.
The interplay of music, image and appealingly-elaborated context creates a rich polyphony of its own (the odd verbal and visual cliché aside), and if some soundbites work better than others there are direct hits for those not allergic to lines such as ‘being signed up by the Pope was like landing a major record deal’.
Least successful is the Bach programme – hopping about, and not always coherently – but any documentary maker who can illustrate the doctrinal problems of a Lassus Mass by underscoring a snatch of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ deserves purgatorial remission for Herculean chutzpah! Paul Riley