United Kingdom The Sixteen at Christmas: The Sixteen, Harry Christophers (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 09.12.2014 (SRT)
Ostensibly, the unifying theme of The Sixteen’s Christmas concert was O Magnum Mysterium, but in actuality they concert’s programme came across as a very pleasant hotch-potch. The ancient Latin text turned up in famous versions by Palestrina, Victoria and Morten Lauridsen, with the bonus of two movements from Palestrina’s Missa O Magnum Mysterium, but if it wasn’t a unifying theme then it really didn’t matter. Instead, we got The Sixteen doing what they do so brilliantly; singing a wide range of repertoire so well that sounds as though it was written especially for them.
I’ve commented before that the defining characteristic of The Sixteen’s sound is an unimpeachable blend so close that you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between the voices. That’s still true, but in some of the British repertoire they sang I was struck more than usually by a sense of drama and storytelling to what they were doing. They sounded utterly unlike a church choir in favourites like O Little Town of Bethlehem or Holst’s In the Bleak Midwinter, not only because none but the very finest church choirs could sing with such togetherness, but because there was an almost operatic quality to the sense of unfolding narrative in the carols. They brought these to life in a way that was new and refreshing to me, and cast a new light on, say, Walford Davies’ version of O Little Town or Gardner’s syncopated When Christ was born of Mary free.
Of course, they sounded predictably magnificent in the soaring Renaissance structures of Palestrina, and the immediacy of the Usher Hall helped to reveal the inner lines much more than they would in, say, a church setting. However, I most enjoyed their sequence of Ireland’s The holy boy, Ives’ Christmas Carol and Will Todd’s My Lord has come: here, as with Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium, they brought to life the harmonies that could be both comforting and unsettling in a way that sounded both ravishingly beautiful and strangely intimate. It was also a nice treat to (nearly) finish with a beautiful polychoral version of Quem pastores laudavere.