The Sixteen’s contribution to Voces8’s wonderfully ambitious Live from London online series ventured away from Voces8’s home ground, to Kings Place. Streaming live (minor buffering issues aside) was pleasingly close to an authentic concert experience, and glimpses of the, albeit significantly reduced, socially-distanced audience and strong applause at the end added to the sense of occasion, undoubtedly highly significant for the performers after such a long time away from the concert platform.

The Sixteen

Restrictions allowed for just ten singers at a time, significantly spaced apart on the relatively small stage, with an unexpected benefit in terms of choral sound. Excessive blending, and smoothing out of vocal textures was less possible, and individual voices came more to the fore. It must have created additional challenges for the performers in terms of listening, but the overall result was one of greater variety of texture and tone. 

The programme was bookended by Anerio’s Litaniae Beatissimae Virginis Mariae, and Victoria’s Litaniae Beatae Mariae. In the Anerio, Harry Christophers built the dynamics from a soft, smooth beginning through to a punchy “causa nostra”, and ringing sopranos for the repeated Reginas. The Victoria in contrast was bright and lively from the outset, with its beautiful rising soprano lines pealing out. Christophers favoured smoothed-out metre changes here, which meant the triple-time rhythms lacked contrast, but the concluding Agnus Dei was suitably gentle, with an insistent, imploring “miserere nobis” to finish.

The rest of the programme alternated Arvo Pärt and Josquin des Prez, with Sheppard’s Libera nos I at the centre. From Pärt, we had The Deer’s Cry, with its slow, pulsing chords in the lower voices, resonantly rich here, and the sopranos’ intensity leading the build to a resonant climax. Da pacem Domine, written in 2004 after the Madrid train bombings, also has a slow harmonic pulse, with long chords, some held, some broken up, and bell-like tolling from the sopranos contrasted with the low resonant basses. The deep bass part also provided anchoring in Morning Star, with high voices undulating on top, its final shift to the major a sudden ray of sunlight. Christophers judged the pace of Pärt’s pieces well – they can have a tendency to grind to a halt if momentum is not maintained – and the rich lower voices provided firm grounding throughout.   

Josquin’s O Virgo prudentissima was given welcome swing and energy, with expert shaping from Christophers. In the Pater Noster and Ave Maria, it became noticeable that the spacing of singers meant that the tenors were rather hidden at the far back corners of the stage. A greater variety of camera angles might have helped here, as these singers were a little lost visually if not aurally. However, Sheppard’s Libera Nos I was the emotional highpoint, with its low bass cantus firmus underpinning the glorious soaring and falling sopranos.

In between, selections from T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral were delivered with impressive intensity by Antonia Christophers. Inclusion of readings in a choral programme can go either way – either a welcome contrast, or an unnecessary intrusion. Here, the former was true, and the sense of reflection at a moment of great uncertainty certainly chimed with our current times, “waiting for another October”, wondering “what wrong shall the fresh earth cover?” The waiting is definitely long…

After rich choral textures, the encore was an unexpected masterstroke – the Agnus Dei from Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices. Opening with just two entwined voices, then three, then four, and beautifully performed here by a solo quartet, this was a perfect, intimate and reflective conclusion.

This performance was reviewed from the video stream on Live from London