As part of the Muziekgebouw’s 2014 Choral Series, renowned chamber choir The Sixteen gave a passionate, committed performance of music by Palestrina, Allegri, and modern composer James MacMillan. Directed by Harry Christophers, The Sixteen (actually comprised, in this concert, of eighteen singers), combined emotional immediacy with fine singing. The heart of the programme was Palestrina’s Stabat Mater, framed by two settings of Psalm 51, the Miserere: Gregorio Allegri’s famous version, here performed in a new edition; and James MacMillan’s own setting of the same text.

The Sixteen and Harry Christophers © Molinavisuals
The Sixteen and Harry Christophers
© Molinavisuals

Allegri’s extraordinary Miserere was written for the Sistine Chapel choir, and was in regular performance from the 17th to the 19th century. The version performed by The Sixteen was a combination of the best known version and a new edition by Ben Byram-Wigfield. For this work, a quartet of soloists left the choir to sing from one of the galleries behind the audience. The soprano soloist who took the wonderful soaring passages in each verse sang different, gorgeously agile embellishments at each repetition of the phrase, with a pure and flexible voice shown to great advantage by Christophers’ ornamentation.

James MacMillan’s own Miserere, performed in the second half, was the outstanding high point of a very fine programme. This beautiful work, which is dedicated to Harry Christophers, moves flexibly between plainchant, polyphonic writing and ornaments and other elements of vocal writing reminiscent of musical traditions from the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East. The choir sang with passion, clearly relishing the musical contrasts, and giving great warmth to the moving final verse. The other major work in the programme was Palestrina’s Stabat Mater. Sung in the middle of the programme, this work formed the centre of a triptych, framed on each side by the two Misereres. It provided a solemn and moving focal point for the programme, and the choir’s poignant simplicity of delivery maintained a powerful emotional tension for the audience.

The other MacMillan pieces were well chosen to combine with the earlier works in the programme. The second half opened with Palestrina’s delightfully joyous motet Regina caeli laetare. Palestrina’s Vineam meam non custodivi segued directly into MacMillan’s O Radiant Dawn, which brilliantly appeared to use some similar polyphonic conventions to the preceding work, though again showing MacMillan’s ability to meld different styles into a coherent and distinctive whole. The moments of unison in the second section on words such as “light” and “shone” had great power, recalling the spiritual significance of the unison in medieval and renaissance music as representing the oneness of God.

Several members of the choir (not specified in the programme) took solo lines at various moments, all showing very different but uniformly excellent vocal talents: both sopranos especially were very fine and the tenor who sang “et clamabat” in MacMillan’s Videns Dominus rang out with terrific fervour. The motet Videns Dominus was distinguished by some remarkable written-out trills - very fast vocal ornaments again reminiscent of Indian and Middle Eastern musical traditions, which were sung with panache and precision by the choir.

The references to Eastern musical styles along with European Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony, combined to make this concert something like a multicoloured snapshot of Christian musical thought from a European perspective, infused by its origins in ancient Galilee. It was a pleasure to hear the warm flexible voices of the choir, in which the individual characteristics of healthy voices such as occasional natural vibrato arose free and uncensored, without ever interfering with the overall purity and unity of sound. Under Christophers’ direction, the choir sang with directness and complete commitment, ensuring that the audience likewise felt at one. A moving and rewarding evening.