Like the word games beloved of the Tudor composers who make up so much of The Sixteen’s core repertoire, the title of their 2019 Choral Pilgrimage has multiple meanings. “An Enduring Voice” could refer to the Eton Choirbook, a great treasure chest of early Tudor church music, from which The Sixteen drew for tonight’s programme. It could also refer to the quiet inspiration of the Virgin Mary, dedicatee of Eton Chapel, and thus the subject of much of the music in the Eton Choirbook. And finally, it aptly describes The Sixteen themselves and their founder and director Harry Christophers as they celebrate their fortieth anniversary. A fair number of those singing in the Choral Pilgrimage at Durham Cathedral tonight probably weren’t even born when Christophers founded his ensemble, but certainly for the nine years that I’ve been seeing them, their distinctive sound, that mixes purity of tone with refined expressivity has remained consistent.

The Sixteen
© Firedog

From that great Eton collection, The Sixteen selected words by John Sheppard, Robert Wylkynsn and Robert Fayrfax. The Gloria from Sheppard’s Missa Cantante had poise and a nice pace, with plenty of kick on the consonants to give shape to the long lines. Christophers brought in subtle shifts in dynamic and tempo between sections, gently changing the mood without interrupting the overall flow of the music. In this early stage of the concert some of the higher voices sounded unusually strained, but this was understandable on a cold wet night at the end of a long tour, and they rounded out as the evening went on.

The dense texture of Wylkynson’s nine-part Salve Regina made for a rich, full-bodied sound. The interjections within the text “O Clemens”, “O pie” stood out like gems on an embroidered cloth as the polyphony unwinds to bring all the voices together in these reverent declamations. The Sixteen brought grit and passion to the final stanza when the text turns to the sufferings of Mary’s son, and a shaft of light shone through on the zingy final “O dulcis Maria, salve”.

Fayrfax’s Eternae laudis lilium is part of The Sixteen’s history, as it was on their very first recording, and it’s one of those Tudor wordplay pieces, with the first lines of the text spelling out ‘Elisabeth Regina Anglie’ (referring to Henry VII’s wife, Elizabeth of York). This tripped along in a light dance, the music full of the floral fragrance of the title, and with an air of ecstatic praise.

When The Sixteen gave their first concert, none of the other works on this Choral Pilgrimage had been composed. The influence of Orthodox music in John Tavener’s pair of songs to Mary, A Hymn to the Mother of God and Hymn for the Dormition of the Mother of God came across strongly, particularly in the smouldering bass lines. There was a nice nod to another great British choir with Eric Whitacre’s Sainte-Chapelle, which was commissioned by the Tallis Scholars for their 40th anniversary in 2013. The text is in Latin, but was written for the piece, and describes a girl being touched by angels on seeing the Sainte-Chapelle, the music characterised by a distinctive rising motif that seems to be a gasp of astonishment. Both this and Gabriel Jackson’s Ave Maria gave the sopranos a chance to show off their cool, bright top notes, with a lovely duet at the end of the Jackson for Julie Cooper and Charlotte Mobbs but when set around the rest of the programme, these two works came across as pretty, but disappointingly bland.

My disappointment in the choice of contemporary repertoire for the programme completely evaporated when we got to James MacMillian’s O Virgo Prudentissima, commissioned last year by The Sixteen. As well as being musically interesting and a joy to listen to, this was a piece that felt carefully tailored to its singers and sensitive to their performing style. The starting point for MacMillan’s piece is a fragment from the Eton Choirbook of the same text, set by Wylkynson. Daniel Collins’ opening alto solo floated ethereally in from nothing; more voices singing and humming gradually added to the texture – a striking feature of this piece was Julie Cooper’s lovely solo line accompanied by a stratospheric and quiet vocalisation from Charlotte Mobbs that created a clever effect of harmonic overtones. MacMillan takes up the rich opportunities for word-painting offered by the text: monumental walls of sound for cliffs, and swirling, high texture emerging from these for the ‘hidden whirlpools’.

After a gloriously complex “Alleluia” to end the MacMillan, a smoothly polished Agnus Dei from Sheppard’s Missa Cantate brought everything gently back to earth, making a satisfying close to this celebratory Pilgrimage.