The Sixteen: An Immortal Legacy


St. John’s Kirk, Perth
18th May 2019 

The Sixteen, under the direction of Harry Christophers, are in their fortieth year of bringing early choral music, as well as groundbreaking new works by the likes of James Macmillan, to an ever-growing audience. Their style combines technical perfection with a warmth of sound that has ensured the choir its place amongst the best in the world.

The Sixteen make a beautiful sound that soothes troubled souls. St John’s Kirk, in the centre of worship in Perth for nearly nine centuries, perhaps has seldom heard such sweet singing as this. “An Immortal Legacy” draws on five centuries of choral music from Tallis and Byrd to Tippett and Macmillan. Music for sacred occasions sits beautifully beside the secular in the programme, with the common thread being simple melodies wrought into complex interweaving sounds, whilst never losing brightness or clarity of expression. The Sixteen’s sound deserves the most careful listening.

The opening pieces, from Tallis’ ‘Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter’ are simple harmonies for whole choir, and recognisable to anyone instantly as the basis for Vaughan Williams’ ‘Fantasia”. This was followed by a ‘Salvator Mundi’ from Tallis, with the choir drawing the variations from the simple plainsong with a rich, organic flow.

Changing tempo, three secular pieces followed, from Morley, Gibbons and Tallis’s great pupil Byrd, that celebrated country pleasures and springtime. Morley’s ‘April is in my Mistress’ Face’, a popular madrigal, leads with soprano, which is then taken up in the round by alto, tenor and bass until it reaches its satisfying harmonisation. The Sixteen sound tight on this brief piece.

James Macmillan’s ‘Sedebit Dominus Rex’ from The Strathclyde Motets introduces an icy blast of caledonian discord from the outset. The first few bars are reminiscent of Celtic or even Byzantine music, and make the hairs on the neck stand to attention. This motto gets repeated, finally finding resolution in the last cord.

Tippett’s five spirituals from ‘A Child of our Time’ demonstrate some superb solo singing from sopranos Jessica Cale and Katy Hill, tenor Jeremy Budd and bass James Birchall. Of particular note, ‘Steal Away’ and ‘Deep River’ are superbly sung. These spirituals were collected by Tippett into his great work at the outset of WWII, and speak de profundis of suffering and hope. The Sixteen perform them with simplicity and sincerity.

The second half of the performance was highlighted by a selection of Britten’s choral dances from his opera ‘Gloriana,’ composed for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and depicting (somewhat unsympathetically) the life of Elizabeth I and her relationship with the Earl of Essex. Although the opera is rarely performed, these dances, sung brightly and joyfully by the Sixteen, are a fine piece on their own. In particular, ’Time’ is a whimsical cascade for voices that lifts the spirits after the solemnity of the Tippett’s spirituals. ‘Country girls’ is so typically English in colour, evoking a midsummer floral bouquet held by a May queen.

I went to the concert expecting something good; expectations were surpassed by this excellent choir.

Mark Mackenzie

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