United Kingdom The Sixteen at Christmas: The Sixteen / Harry Christophers (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. 6.12.2012 (PCG)
Josquin des Prez: Praeter rerum siderum: O Virgo prudentissima
William Byrd: Lullaby my sweet little baby
Jean Mouton: Nesciens mater
Thomas Ravencroft: Remember, O thou man
Orlande de Lassus: Magnificat Praeter rerum siderum
Herbert Howells: Sing lullaby: A spotless rose
Arthur Oldham: Remember, O thou man
Kenneth Leighton: Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child
Traditional: This is the truth sent from above (arr Vaughan Williams): Rocking (arr Willcocks): Coventry Carol: There is no rose: Wexford Carol
This was an original and well-contrasted programme juxtaposing early Renaissance settings of Nativity texts with traditional carols and some modern settings. The eighteen singers produced plenty of volume when required, as in the double-choir spread across the stage in the Mouton motet Nesciens mater, but also gave us lots of subtlety and delicacy. The performances, as one would expect from this choir, were faultless apart from one minor slip from the basses in the long des Prez motet O Virgo prudentissima. This could well be attributed to a feeling of unease with the hall itself. The antiseptic acoustic of St David’s produced some rather clinical singing especially in the first half of the programme, while the singers were becoming accustomed to the sound; one might have wished that this concert could have been given in the more resonant Llandaff Cathedral (where one noticed the next Sixteen concert in Cardiff is scheduled). Later the problems were triumphantly overcome, transporting the listener to some abbey or other provided that one kept one’s eyes shut.
One very minor point: the singers in There is no rose persistently pronounced the word “virtue” in the modern fashion (“ver-tyoo”) as opposed to the mediaeval manner (“ver-too”), which jarred slightly when rhymed with “Jesu”. On the other hand the rather indistinct delivery of the words of Rocking was perhaps a blessing. The text of this carol is credited in the Oxford Book of Carols to a translation from the original Czech by “OBC” – the author of such lines as “darling, darling little man” evidently deciding (correctly) to remain anonymous. Elsewhere the diction was excellent, with some very subtle colouring in the sudden hush at phrases like “sanctum nomen eius” in the Lassus Magnificat.
The traditional carols were all given nicely considered performances, although to have all five strophic verses of the Wexford carol given in the same harmonisation (by Martin Shaw from the Oxford Book of Carols) was perhaps too much. Vaughan Williams did not make that mistake in his The truth sent from above where he varied the setting from verse to verse; although there are similarities, this is at the same quite a different treatment from that he gave to the tune in his Fantasia on Christmas carols. In the original 1591 setting of the Coventry Carol the choir gave a nicely bruising touch to the discords in the harmonization which still, after more than four hundred years, have the power to shock.
In the more modern works, the juxtaposition of Arthur Oldham’s setting of Ravenscroft’s words in Remember, O thou man did not show to best advantage against the author’s own setting – Oldham’s use of more contrasted tempi sounded more contrived than convincing. Leighton’s setting of the Coventry Carol was done superbly, and Julie Cooper floated her solo lines with angelic grace. Best of all were the two Howells settings, both gems which made one long for the third of the set.
The choir concluded with no less than three encores, all traditional carol settings which sent the audience away happy. It was a pity that the upper parts of the hall were so empty. This same programme is being repeated in Battersea (8 December), Reading (9 December), Queen Elizabeth Hall (10 December) and Oxford (20 December). I would urge all readers to make an effort to attend these.
Paul Corfield Godfrey