The Sixteen’s new programme of Byrd (mostly extracted from the Cantiones Sacrae of 1575), Tallis and Arvo Pärt (three pieces from 1997-2007) completely charms the ear and exercises the intellect. It works on every level.

The Sixteen © Arnaud Stephenson
The Sixteen
© Arnaud Stephenson

 The first thing one notices is the sheer vividness of the sound. Just a few rows back (sometimes one does get lucky), you don’t just hear it, you can feel it in the air around you. If there are occasions with renaissance polyphony when the choral tone just functions as a continuous wash, what this programme and this choir unfailingly deliver is an astonishing timbral variety. There is also a clear forward momentum, that sense that a new page is always about to be turned, that it will open up yet another new vista or mood. The inclusion of the Pärt pieces serves to affirm and to reinforce the contrasts that are already there in the works from four hundred years earlier.

There are times when the Sixteen’s eighteen singers (hold on to that paradox for a moment) offer infinite softness and delicacy, as if walking on eggshells. There has clearly been immense care taken to deliver a balance so that the tiniest detail or ornament in each part can be heard. And then – particularly in the final sequence, you witness them responding to Harry Christophers’ occasional encouragement to dig deeper, to bring to life a mood of rejoicing through praise, and to sing fortissimo and out of their skins.

I couldn’t help noticing the group’s responsiveness and alertness to the minutiae of the words. One of the themes that unites Byrd and Pärt across the centuries is that they lived with a continued threat of religious persecution. The Byrd pieces have several sections which mention enemies, and each allusion to the threat from outside brought wonderfully pointed word-painting, to etch out the hint of danger and fear.

One definite highlight of this year’s sequence is Arvo Pärt's Nunc Dimittis, in the second half. It is about seven minutes long, but it seems to contain in its short span many worlds of possibilities. Every single one of the jarring semitone or minor ninth clashes, carefully flagged up with dotted lines in the score, was brought out exquisitely. The soprano soloist Julie Cooper has just a tiny window of opportunity to shine in this work, but her singing of the words oculei mei (mine eyes), each time in surprising, strangely angular phrases, had total conviction, clarity and logic. And the basses’ insistent low C sharp drone from down in the depths is one of those once-heard never-forgotten sounds.

The Sixteen’s programmers have been devising sequences to tour and to issue on record for more than a decade and a half now, but they are certainly not running out of ideas. On the evidence of last night’s opening concert of the 2016 Choral Pilgrimage, they might even just be getting into their stride.

The Choral Pilgrimage comes accompanied by a CD with good notes, and a concert programme which enables the listener to find out even more. There are thoughtful essays by John Milson writing about Byrd and Tallis, and by Simon Broughton on Pärt. Their writing brings out another linking theme: that both composers wrote “rigorously according to logic and rule,” and the programme provides a number of good examples

But even for the audience member who just likes to sit and day-dream, to let the astonishing sound of a first-rate choir charm the ear, there can be no complaints. These performances are well-nigh flawless. But the subtlety, the range, the juxtapositions of timbre are mesmerising.

An April Fool!
An April Fool!
And the Sixteen’s attention to detail earlier this month even extended to a cunning April fool. No, they are not really re-branding, but...yes they do have eighteen singers, every one of whom performs miracles.

 

Click here for details of dates of the 2016 Choral Pilgrimage

*****