United Kingdom Poulenc, Britten, Traditional: The Sixteen at Christmas, Harry Christophers (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 15.12.2013 (SRT)
It’s claimed by some that The Sixteen are the most popular choir in Britain. If it’s true then it’s easy to see why: the tightness of their blend and the fact that you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between any of the singers means that they are closer to achieving choral perfection than most choirs can ever dream of. This isn’t all gain, necessarily. Some choirs intentionally hang on to a slightly rough edge so that the thrill of discovery is a bit more apparent, but the polish and refinement of The Sixteen means that the audience is presented with what is, in effect, the finished article. Even when they attempt to inject a slightly less honed effect, such as with the percussion in some of tonight’s medieval carols, they do so in the most controlled fashion. That means it rather lacks authenticity, and I found the mugging about of the soloists in Britten’s Shepherd’s Carol more irritating than anything else. (Maybe I just have no sense of humour: I complained about something similar when they did King Arthur at the Edinburgh Festival in 2012.)
There’s nothing wrong with the pursuit of beauty, though, and it elevated some of the medieval carols on tonight’s programme onto a level of transcendence of which their first performers must scarcely have been able to dream. They were in their element in the Poulenc settings: the men created a paradoxically homely sound for the Quatre petites prières de Saint François d’Assise, and the delicious hanging suspensions of the Quatre motets pour le temps do Noël were beautifully realised. The Britten settings were the climax of the evening, though.The Hymn to the Virgin used the full length of the hall to great effect, with no loss of unity, and we were treated to a beautifully intimate performance of the Ceremony of Carols, marred only by some dreadful attacks of winter coughing, an occupational hazard for any Christmas concert. The purity of the soprano sound was especially beautiful in the monophonic settings of the Procession and Recession, and the racy harmonies of the later carols bounced delightfully off some extraordinary harp playing. The finest moments, though, were the still small sounds of That yongë child and, especially, Bululalow. It’s extraordinary that in the huge space of the Usher Hall Christophers and his singers were able to achieve such intimacy of communication. Whatever else you might think of The Sixteen, they’re undeniably a class act.