At one point in the classic 1950 film All About Eve, the inimitable theatre critic Addison DeWitt speaks reverently of his art as critic: “I have lived in the theatre as a Trappist monk lives in his faith. I have no other world; no other life – and once in a great while, I experience that moment of revelation for which all true believers wait and pray.” While my career as critic is merely in its embryonic stages and I most certainly do have a life outside of the concert hall, tonight’s performance by The Sixteen at the National Concert Hall, Dublin was truly such a moment of revelation. Recognised as one of the world’s finest ensembles, The Sixteen, under the direction of its founder Harry Christophers, gave a sublime rendition of some of Handel’s lesser known choral works. The Sixteen consists of a select choir of eighteen singers (not sixteen, as one might expect) and a period-instrument orchestra, and it has garnered a distinguished reputation for early English polyphony, Renaissance and Baroque music.

The Sixteen © Molinvisuals
The Sixteen
© Molinvisuals

There was a daring monothematic element to the programming for this concert, which consisted of three motets (Silete venti, Nisi Dominus and Dixit Dominus) and an anthem (Let thy Hand be Strengthened) by George Frideric Handel. Handel is known for his vocal compositions in English, so the fact that three out of the four were in Latin was novel. Despite this Latinate propensity, there was nonetheless an internal historical balance in the programming. Both the anthem and the motet Silete venti were written when Handel was living in England (the Latin text being a puzzling anomaly) while the other two motets date from his first visit to Rome in 1707.

From the very start of the opening anthem, Let thy Hand be Strengthened, the sound from the orchestra was perfectly balanced, in tune and confident, responding with great sensitivity to the mercurial directions of the conductor. Christophers was bouncing up and down, pacing slightly from side to side with the sheer ebullience of the music. Nor did the choir disappoint when they entered. The rich, warm sound of the singers, powerful yet never straining, gave lie to the fact that there were only eighteen voices and not eighty. The middle section (“Let Justice...”) was imbued with a majestic solemnity while the closing “Alleluia” allowed the fine contrapuntal lines to be brought out with an exciting clarity.

Silete venti, a motet for soprano and strings, followed next, with Lucy Crowe as the soloist. After a lively introduction on the strings, the soprano interrupts, “silencing the winds”. Crowe’s voice possessed that winning combination of purity of tone, lightness and a ready capacity to convey a wide range of emotions. The da capo aria of “Dulcis Amor” permitted Crowe to showcase some exquisitely executed ornaments, while in the second aria, “Date Serta”, the melismas of great length and complexity were sung with charming ease. One might quibble that the extremes of the range did not find Crowe at her most comfortable (particularly the top C sharp/D in the original score), nonetheless the intelligent phrasing and expressive dynamics from both soloist and orchestra made this rarely heard work utterly compelling.

In the second half we were treated to the two “Roman” motets. The Nisi Dominus is a work for three soloists (an alto, tenor and bass), chorus and orchestra. It is tribute to the quality of singers of The Sixteen that all of them could very well be soloists in their own right, as Kim Porter (alto), Jeremy Budd (tenor) and Stuart Young (bass) amply demonstrated. Budd sang “Vanum est vobis” in a suitable meditative style, while Young sung his “Sicut sagittae” with great dexterity. Porter, though possessed of a fine voice, lacked something of animation in her “Cum dederit”. The entire choir superbly handled the counterpoint of the closing “Gloria”.

The climax came in the final motet of the evening, Dixit Dominus – fittingly, my highlight of the concert as a whole. Written when Handel was just 22, it is a remarkable composition, employing virtuosic counterpoint, a complex cantus firmus and some startling staccato chords depicting the destruction of kings and leaders, all of which were sung with extraordinary vigour and energy. This headlong forward impetus was interrupted by the peaceful calm of the soprano duet where, Grace Davidson and Charlotte Mobbs created the most ravishing sounds. The fugue in the thrilling “Gloria” was expertly handled by Christophers, allowing the tension to build rhythmically and dynamically until it burst forth into a joyous conclusion, a veritable tour de force of contrapuntal, vocal and orchestral compositional virtuosity. This work was a fitting end to two sublime days of music-making. A richly deserved standing ovation followed.

*****