As Christmas draws near, festive concerts and carol services become increasingly prolific, ranging from local sing-songs to full size professional events. Harry Christophers' Yuletide concerts with The Sixteen tend to provide a degree of variety that can often be lacking at this time of the year; this instalment at Cadogan Hall contained a mixture of pieces from the Renaissance through to the 20th century, with one or two well-known ‘hits’ from the popular carol repertory. The evening’s central focus was the Three Kings, strictly μάγοι, meaning wise men, who decided to gatecrash the Messiah’s birth, but brought some luxury gifts from the ancient world’s equivalent of Fortnum & Masons. It’s an element of the Nativity that’s always been popular and transfers well into art – the questing, journeying element, the driving curiosity and belief that impelled them to leave their cosy libraries in favour of a stable, and of course the guiding star that draws them to the stable. Christophers chose works with plenty of substance which often provided different accounts of the same text.
There’s always a slight anxiety with a ‘fun’ concert that the preparation may not be treated with the same importance as say, The St Matthew Passion. Pleasingly, but not unsurprisingly, this was not the case with The Sixteen’s approach to this concert. They were at their best when singing Palestrina, the Reges Tharsis sung with a moving combination of austerity and reverence, the Videntes stellam Magi in tones of hallowed narrative. Palestrina’s great contemporary of the 16th century, Orlande de Lassus also made a welcome appearance with his version of Videntes stellam Magi, where Christophers brought a clear and multi-faceted structure that allowed the vocal contrasts to be exposed without any one strand dominating. Long, long ago by Herbert Howells, a big beast of 20th century church music shimmered expansively in a colourful, spacious reading, a welcome contrast to a This endris night which felt a little creaky.
Diction from all was perfectly precise, and there were some impressive contributions from soloists – Tim Jones, Ben Davies and Eamonn Dougan as bass soloists for a stately rendition of We Three Kings combined a robust energy with harmony and fine projection. Alexandra Kidgell opened the concert with I wonder as I wander, her lean but elegant soprano offering a sweet introduction to the piece. A rare moment of contemporary music offered an appealing flavour to counter the weight of tradition with Quem pastores laudavere with clear influences of modern music making the work fizz.
An impressive finale of Magnificat a 8 by the early Baroque composer Felice Anerio was a fine way to conclude the programme, the complex weaving of the piece well served by Christophers’ adept handling of the threads. The Sixteen rather gamely proceeded to give us a cheery encore of Ding dong merrily on high to conclude the evening, full of zest and spirit. A little more meat in the programme would have been welcome, but it was an excellent demonstration of the talents of the ensemble.
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