For the last 16 years, The Sixteen have toured the UK on a ‘Choral Pilgrimage’, each year championing a different slice of the rich choral repertoire; this year, music by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, paired with William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, figureheads of the Tudor Renaissance. However, in this late-night prom, Byrd and Tallis were out, exchanged for J.S. Bach and three of his virtuosic motets, interspersed by Pärt’s straight-talking Nunc dimittis and Triodion − or ‘palette-cleansers’, as they were announced. 

Harry Christophers © BBC|Chris Christodoulou
Harry Christophers
© BBC|Chris Christodoulou

If Byrd and Tallis were too small-scale for a 5000-seater hall that doesn’t explain swapping them for Bach, so I wasn’t surprised to see the 18 members of The Sixteen joined by 16 alumni of Genesis Sixteen, the choir’s young artists’ scheme, aimed at nurturing the next generation of top-flight choral singers. Augmenting the group for this venue was a wise decision (it’s important to be heard!), but although it worked perfectly for the Pärt, it led to broad brush-strokes in the Bach; their performance made me realise that Pärt and Bach play a choir quite differently. 

Pärt treats the choir like an organ: you can imagine him composing sat at a keyboard, playing as he recites the text. He may have an array of sounds at his disposal − different stops, different voices − but they are just part of his singular musical voice, each individual singer just a key on the choral instrument. He even writes lines which would be better suited to an organ − both his Nunc dimittis and Triodion demand long, unwavering sustained notes − and so with Pärt, a choir has done its job well if you don’t notice how hard they’re working.

Beautifully blended and balanced, The Sixteen sounded like one instrument, their efforts well and truly concealed. With so many singers, Christophers was able to craft a wide dynamic range, best demonstrated in the Nunc dimittis in which he achieved a really effective growth from almost a hum to an arresting, transcendental climax − ‘to be a light to lighten the gentiles’. With a heavy, kneading beat Christophers seemed focussed on knitting the sound together, allowing it to speak as one. He and the choir resisted the temptation to bring too much of themselves to Pärt’s music, allowing it to do the talking. 

Bach was an organist, but he treats his choir like an orchestra, each part like a different instrument, full of individuality and complexity. Unlike Pärt, he demands personality and commitment from his singers, just in the same way that you’d expect a wind player to own an orchestral solo or a cello section to bring out a ravishing melody. Performing as such a large group − 26 singers in Komm, Jesu, komm and Singet dem Herrn, the full 34 in Jesu, meine Freunde − individual colour and interest were mostly ironed out by the unstoppable instinct to homogenise. It feels wrong to criticise, but it was simply too well balanced; unlike in the Pärt, I wanted to experience the work of the choir, and more Lutheran grit and passion. 

Harry Christophers conducts The Sixteen and Genesis Sixteen © BBC|Chris Christodoulou
Harry Christophers conducts The Sixteen and Genesis Sixteen
© BBC|Chris Christodoulou

As they sang of passing ‘through thunder and lightning, against sin and hell’ in Jesu, meine Freude, I felt little engagement with the text or indeed the core message of these motets; that earthly life is hard but, believe in God, and Jesus will protect you. The emotional core of this motet comes as the soul bids ‘Good night’ to the corporeal world, but I was no proffered no hint of its significance to the piece or Lutheran doctrine as a whole. I don’t think it’s enough to just sing this music.

In fast, loud music, such as the outer sections of Singet dem Herrn, the sound was impressive and characterful, but flashy counterpoint is bread and butter to The Sixteen. In the less active, more plaintive sections, the contrapuntal conversation broke down, tuning and ensemble weren’t as good; the group lost personality again. Without a human touch, music like the encircling sequences which conclude the main body of Komm, Jesu, komm are just mindless counterpoint − you’ve got to milk them! Of course this performance was far from unsatisfactory, but I didn’t sense that they were really inside it, doing all they could to bring it to an audience.

A smaller group of such talented singers would have taken much more ownership over the Bach, but would have likely been lost in the hall. On balance, I think the larger group was the right decision; the perfect instrument for Pärt.

***11