The Sixteen show continuity of Britain’s choral tradition from Tallis to Tippett.

Tallis, Morley, Gibbons, Byrd, MacMillan, Tippett, Britten: The Sixteen, Harry Christopher (conductor)  St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 24.5.11 (GPu)

Tallis, Nine Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter (first part)
Tallis, Salvator Mundi
Morley, April is in my mistress’ face
Gibbons, The Silver Swan
Byrd, This Sweet and Merry Month of May
MacMillan, Sedebit Dominum Rex
Tippett, Five Negro Spirituals (from A Child of Our Time)
Tallis, O nata lux; O sacrum convivium; Loquebantur variis linguis
MacMillan, Mitte manum tuam
Byrd, Laudibus in sanctis
Britten, Choral Dances (from Gloriana)
Tallis, Nine Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter (second part)

There are times when, as a reviewer, one feels almost wholly redundant. There are surely few readers of this website who don’t know that The Sixteen is a highly accomplished choir, with a repertoire that crosses most historical and stylistic boundaries. Those who have heard The Sixteen live, or even only heard some of their CDs, will not, I suspect, need much persuading that Harry Christophers generally designs very striking and elegantly designed programmes for his choir to sing. There is a temptation simply to say that in this concert in Cardiff (gratifyingly well attended, incidentally) the choir sang as movingly and beautifully as one had hoped and that the programme they sang was itself historically revealing and aesthetically satisfying, and leave it at that.

But duty requires that the reviewer say a little more. Throughout the choir’s work was an unalloyed delight, relatively complex musical textures were articulated with great clarity, while the blend of voices was warmly embracing. The sound was rich and sumptuous when appropriate, simple and spare when the music required those qualities. One of the hallmarks of The Sixteen’s work is their sensitivity to detail of verbal text, their incorporation of verbal phrase pattern and emphasis into their interpretation of musical line, an incorporation which never lapses into crude word-painting.

Harry Christophers’ programme was a miniature masterpiece of judgement and design, a demonstration of the continuity of the English (and Scottish!) choral tradition. But it was a demonstration that avoided any homogenisation of the music, a demonstration that respected the stylistic differences as well as the similarities, discovered diversity amidst unity (and was never in the slightest danger of being merely didactic). The evening began with the first four of the nine pieces which Tallis contributed to Archbishop Matthew Parker’s Psaltery (?1567). It ended with the last five of the nine pieces, bringing the evening full circle, as it were. The effect was to make all that sung in between, all that was framed by these Nine Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter, seem like a logical musical journey that moved out from, and back to, Tallis’s beautiful, simple, unelaborated settings. Along the arc of that journey highlights included, in the first half, the beautiful polyphonic textures of Tallis’ hymn Salvator Mundi, and  – to illustrate the assured range of The Sixteen’s abilities – Tippett’s Five Negro Spirituals, wonderfully expressive settings, more elaborate, of course, than Tallis’s Nine Tunes but doing something similar with traditional melodic lines. In the second half, Byrd’s Laudibus in Sanctis, from the second book of Cantiones Sacrae was strikingly beautiful, sung with a glorious sense of shape and structure; James MacMillan’s Mitte Manum Tuam is one of his most attractive motets, a perfect fusion of archaic chant, echoes of the polyphonic tradition, and distinctly modern elements. Christophers and The Sixteen responded beautifully to the work’s well integrated eclecticism. (The Sixteen’s recording of the piece, on Bright Orb of Harmony, COR 16069, on which MacMillan’s work is juxtaposed with that of Purcell, is especially fine too). But it would be tedious to enumerate all the pleasures of this concert. My one area of slight reservation concerned the three madrigals by Morley, Gibbons and Byrd, in which the eighteen voices of this particular incarnation of The Sixteen made a slightly unwieldy sound in music that needed greater nimbleness.

The people of South Wales know a thing or too about choral singing and the universal praise and admiration to be heard all around one at the end of the concert was a fitting and well-informed tribute to a very fine choir.

Glyn Pursglove