The programme notes for The Sixteen’s 2013 Choral Pilgrimage draw attention to how composers have been inspired by the grandeur and beauty of their places of worship and work. In this context, the setting for The Sixteen’s concert in Oxford was more than suitable. Completed in 1200, Christ Church Cathedral is a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. For a long time this cathedral was the smallest in England, and for Saturday’s concert the intimate space was packed full of choral music devotees.

The Sixteen in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, 2012 © KT Bruce
The Sixteen in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, 2012
© KT Bruce

The Sixteen have been embarking on Choral Pilgrimages since 2000, and at 34 dates this is their furthest-reaching yet. This year’s concept programme, “The Queen of Heaven”, is underpinned by the plainsong Regina caeli laetare. After a prayer of thanksgiving, the Antiphon rang out across the cathedral as the men processed from the western nave to join the women at the crossing.

The first redressing of the plainsong to be heard was the Kyrie from Palestrina’s Missa Regina caeli. The Sixteen brought their trademark homogenous sound to the composer’s long-breathed phrases, with conductor Harry Christophers deftly interweaving the contours of each line to create an immersive polyphonic fabric. The soprano blend was especially beautiful, and the ensemble balanced a sense of meditation with a growing intensity, adding urgency to the invocation.

Although The Sixteen have been associated with James MacMillan for some time, I felt that they seemed somewhat disconnected from the composer’s style in their performance of Dominus dabit benignitatem. There was a sense of hesitation to their performance, with the polarised texture revealing a few intonation issues in the soprano melody.

The centrepiece of the programme was a new edition of Allegri’s Miserere. Drawing upon the research of Ben Byram-Wigfield, this version is derived from a number of sources and traces the work’s transformation from its conception to the piece we know today. The alterations introduce much new material, including exotic harmonies, sliding chromatic lines and florid ornamentation. However, Christophers’ tempo seemed slightly too hurried, rushing the decorative soprano line in the semi-chorus.

The Sixteen seemed more comfortable in the next piece of MacMillan, seizing onto the imitative counterpoint of Videns Dominus. Particularly effective was the delicate and spacious sound reserved for the depiction of the miracle. Christophers encouraged a more forceful sound to highlight the emotional turmoil of Palestrina’s Stabat Mater. Powerful climaxes alternated with coaxing quieter sections, conveying the narrator’s appeal with poise and dignity. The exchange between the two choirs was given a sense of continuity and progression, culminating in a D major blaze.

Palestrina’s Regina caeli laetare in eight parts heralded the evening’s second half. Christophers emphasised the jubilatory mood of the text with buoyant and brisk spun-out lines, adding a sense of contemplation through the expansive cadences.

The Sixteen conveyed the humble supplication of Vineam meam non custodivi before an abrupt change of mood. The searing emotion brought to MacMillan’s O Radiant Dawn made it the highlight of the concert. From the abrasive alto appoggiaturas to the sighing Amens, The Sixteen’s performance was urgent and compelling. The tranquil lyricism of Palestrina’s Pulchrae sunt genae tuae established a much calmer mood and displayed the ensemble’s powers for subtle narration.

James MacMillan’s harrowing setting of the Miserere was next on the programme. The group’s use of a much more direct sound allowed them to emphasise the dissonances and add a pure beauty to the angular melodic lines. Waves of sound swelled from the reflective opening, and even the violent moments of the piece didn’t compromise the long-breathed lines and roundness of sound. Unfortunately the alto recitative wasn’t quite synchronised after some wonderfully keening solos, but the powerful and resonant last verse more than made up for this. A return to Palestrina’s Missa Regina caeli bookended the concert. The Sixteen were back in their comfort zone in the Agnus Dei I–III, bringing tranquillity and warmth to the end of the evening.

The Sixteen’s sound was as beautiful as ever, and their Palestrina exceptional. I only wish that they had taken a few more risks: perhaps this would have allowed them to elevate some of their MacMillan to the next level. Overall, though, a thought-provoking programme which was a joy to listen to.

****1