In his introductory talk before The Sixteen’s Choral Pilgrimage concert in Durham Cathedral, conductor Harry Christophers explained that the original idea of their Choral Pilgrimage series was to bring the glories of English church music back into the buildings for which the pieces had been written. It seemed fitting, therefore, that in this tenth anniversary year, the choir should have chosen a programme of works by Byrd, Sheppard and Tallis, three composers from the Tudor age, that age which set the style of worship in England down to today.

Robert Parker as Romeo, photo: Bill Cooper
Robert Parker as Romeo, photo: Bill Cooper

By choosing a programme of elaborate polyphonic works, in Latin, The Sixteen looked not to the new Protestant faith introduced under the Tudors, but to the Latin heritage of the English church, and the Catholic faith which inspired the building of our great cathedrals and churches.

The Catholic theme was set by a piece of perfect plainchant singing which opened the concert, sung from the high altar; the ancient hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (Come Holy Ghost). Plainchant singing is much harder to do well than the simplicity of the sound suggests, but of course The Sixteen were flawless, each voice blending perfectly and all singers moving together, as one, with absolute precision.

Two massive devotional works formed the core of the concert – John Sheppard’s Media vita in more sumus (In the midst of life we are in death) closed the first half, and the concert ended with William Byrd’s extraordinary Infelix Ego (Unhappy I), a motet set to words written by the Italian martyr Savonarola shortly before his death and after undergoing unbearable torture. Both of these intensely personal works were sung with a restrained emotion, which never became excessive. The high soprano notes in the Sancte Deus section that punctuated Media vita in more sumus rang down the nave, before the piece closed with an incredibly controlled diminuendo.

The programme also showed off the technical abilities of both composers and performers. The syncopations in the complicated, dance-like passages at the end of William Byrd’s joyful Laudibus in Sanctis (In Sacred Praises) bounced around, with each part immediately pulling back after their entries allowing the next voices to come through. The words, from Psalm 150, call on cymbals to praise the Lord, and the effect was of successive explosions of sound firing around the building.

Thomas Tallis is, of course, famous for the hymn tune known as “Tallis’s Canon” but we were given a display of a far more intricate example of his canonic writing. The piece Miserere Nostri was written to commemorate the seventeenth year of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, and is based on a seventeen note theme, which is then set in canon, with inversions and different tempi. As soprano Sally Dunkley and Harry Christophers both explain in their excellent programme notes, in the hands of a lesser composer, such an exercise in technical wizardry would have remained just that; a boring academic exercise. Tallis however creates a flowing, sinuous masterpiece.

As ever, The Sixteen gave a beautiful and inspiring performance, of unusual and interesting works, which was much appreciated by the full cathedral, and which will have given the many amateur singers and students spotted in the audience plenty to learn from. We look forward to their 2011 visit.

*****