This year, The Sixteen’s Choral Pilgrimage features the work of just one man, Tomás Luis de Victoria, one of the greatest composers of church music of the Renaissance. Victoria’s best known works are probably his introspective and reverential Christmas motet O Magnum Mysterium and the penitential Tenebrae Responses for Good Friday, and although there were still elements of that mysticism in the programme presented by The Sixteen, it mostly showed Victoria in a completely different light, for this was a selection of works written in heartfelt praise of the Virgin Mary, fresh with the fervour of the Counter-Reformation, full of excitement and joy.

© Mark Harrison
© Mark Harrison

This freshness and excitement was put across to great effect by The Sixteen. The Missa Alma Redemptoris Mater was full of dramatic moments. The crashing tenor entry on the words Rex coelestis was, in a word, regal, and the Sanctus, brought out the richness of the bass voices in a programme that drew more attention to the higher voices - as befits the feminine themes. Perhaps the most exciting piece was the short Gaude Maria Virgo which they zipped through, almost as if wanting to skip over the uncomfortable words about Mary being the destroyer of all heretics.

Victoria is noted for his word-painting, and although to describe what he does looks simple and obvious on the page, such as rising quaver passages on the words in Vidi speciosam that describe a dove ascending to heaven, the results when sung are a delight. Harry Christophers said in his pre-concert talk that he feels it is particularly important to put across the meaning of the words to an audience who aren’t as familiar with Latin as the first to hear Victoria’s music would have been, and so he and his singers really brought out the brush-strokes of Victoria’s pictures such as the clanking chains being thrown off in the third verse of Ave maris stella or the sparkling setting of the words stella maris - star of the sea - in the five part Alma Redemptoris Mater.
Sitting fairly near the front of Durham Cathedral is not necessarily the best place acoustically (the sopranos were occasionally drowned out by the men, but in my experience, this was probably not so noticeable further back), but it did give me the opportunity to enjoy Harry Christophers’ expressive conducting, which brought out every nuance of Victoria’s music - I was amused to see him making flowering gestures during the passage of Vidi speciosam which described roses. Even watching from behind, it was perfectly clear what he wanted the choir to do - and of course, they did it, wonderfully.

There were quieter moments too amid all this music of praise, and The Sixteen know exactly when to cool things down. The opening of Congratulamini mihi in which Mary says that she is “very little” was modest, and humble before growing again into the beautifully phrased long, flowing passages of the second half. The lovely eight-part version of the Alma Redemptoris contained music that recalled the contemplative side of Victoria and the singers brought out the contrasts masterfully in the long Ave maris stella. Several of the pieces chosen had passages of plainsong, contrasting with the rich polyphony: I have marvelled before at the ease and grace with which The Sixteen sing plainsong, and as ever it was a delight to listen to.

All elements of this evening’s music came together in the last work, the Litaniae Betae Mariae, written for double choir. It’s largely a roll-call of the Virgin’s titles, punctuated after each description with the words “pray for us”. The soothing, hypnotic repetition of the prayer blossomed out into a celebration of Mary as Queen, before closing with a powerful and richly sung Agnus Dei to end a perfect concert.