British ensemble The Sixteen presented an evening of mellifluous choral music in Sydney, one of only three performances in Australia.

The Sixteen © Firedog
The Sixteen
© Firedog

The programme was an intelligently created combination of distinctly British compositions: church music from the Tudor and Jacobean eras alternated with madrigals by Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons. The influence of this musical style was then demonstrated with 20th-century compositions by Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett and James MacMillan. The ensemble has been performing this exact program in the UK and internationally for at least ten years with the title of An Immortal Legacy, and also successfully recorded it several years ago.

The Sixteen, presumably named for having four each of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses, actually performed as ‘Eighteen’, extended with two extra sopranos. Several of the works called for a superius and a discantus part (using 16th-century terminology), effectively dividing the sopranos into two parts, thus this decision.

Without exception, all members of the ensemble treated their parts with supple elegance, and the balance between the parts was impeccable. On a few occasions, for example towards the end of Tallis’ O nata lux or at the beginning of MacMillan’s Mitte manum tuam, the intonation was slightly unsettled – but it may have been the result of jet lag, the ensemble only having arrived the previous night in Australia. This was, however, only temporary, and notwithstanding the fact that Tallis’ famous motet for seven voices begins with the words Loquebantur variis linguis Apostoli (The apostles spoke in different languages), these apostles of choral music clearly spoke the same language.

Four Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter by Tallis opened the programme and another four finished it. While this gave a pleasant frame to the concert, the opening four psalms, in their utter simplicity, showed what is always a difficult issue for chamber choirs: the differences in vibrato. Later in the programme it was less noticeable, but here the high voices’ (particularly the altos’) pure, almost perfectly straight singing was contrasted with frequent and not necessarily welcome vibrato in the basses.

Byrd’s motet, paraphrasing Psalm 150, Laudibus in sanctis, stood out with the light treatment of voices and rhythms. It had an almost dance-like cheerful lilt, not normally expected from a sacred composition, and despite the five parts mostly moving in different rhythms, the enunciation of the Latin text was excellent – whereas elsewhere, the diction of the text was not always clear.

Among the seven movements of Britten’s Gloriana, Op.53, the most appealing were the fifth and the sixth, in which two groups of sopranos (Country Girls) and tenors and basses (Rustics and Fishermen) were juxtaposed respectively. Both movements showed great virtuosity and an unashamed joy of singing. Five spirituals from Tippett’s A Child of Our Time finished the first half of the concert, starting with the emotionally filled Steel away and finishing with the equally popular Deep river. The most moving and truly excellent solo of the evening was performed by an unnamed member of the sopranos, with strong voice and flawless technique.

With short notice, Harry Christophers, who founded the ensemble four decades ago, had to cancel this tour. In his stead, Eamonn Dougan, the associate conductor of the choir, took over and did a splendid job. With small movements he not so much conducted his singers, but rather reminded them of the correct tempi, phrasing and dynamics.

Byrd’s Ave verum corpus served as a suitably serene encore to the concert.

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