The Sixteen: An Immortal Legacy

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Published: 14th March, 2019

For their 2019 concert tour The Sixteen’s Associate Conductor, Eamon Dougan, took the place of Founder and Conductor Harry Christophers to skillfully direct this renowned a cappella consort of voices, many members of which had performed in the highly acclaimed “The Queen of Heaven” concert in 2015. As this was the third time the Melbourne Recital Centre had reverberated to the 18 voices of The Sixteen, it would have come as no surprise to their large devoted Melbourne following that this would be a concert where singers could “be themselves”, as Christophers once put it.

The basses immediately illustrated his point from the opening notes of Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter by Thomas Tallis. With the acoustic blinds of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall fully retracted to provide full resonance, it was the beginning of a performance where vitality was combined with rich vocal tone and precision – qualities that have made The Sixteen one of the world’s most celebrated vocal ensembles. At no point was the sound in any way thin or anaemic; even in the softest, most perfectly blended passages, fullness and warmth was a hallmark of a fusion of complementary strengths. In the eight Tallis Tunes that virtually bookended the program the singers made the most of the drama, injecting satisfying expressive intensity into phrases such as “At face of fire, as wax doth melt, God’s face the bad must fly”. The following Salvator mundi was notable for robust sound where each part was clearly heard. In so many of the works the clarity of interweaving parts was one of the most exciting and engrossing features.

Three madrigals, one apiece by Morley, Gibbons and Byrd followed in quick succession, so much so, that the listener hardly had time to absorb the mood of each piece. Although beautifully sung and phrased, Orlando Gibbons’ The Silver Swan, seemed curiously lacking in the atmosphere that this much-loved pinnacle of English motet writing can create; it may be that the poignant magic inherent in this simple work is easier to achieve with one voice per part.

This was certainly not the case with James MacMillan’s Sedebit Dominus Rex and later Mitte manum tuam from his so-called Strathclyde Motets with its elements of ancient Celtic music characterized by “Scotch snap” rhythm, ornamentation and humming drone. The capacity of The Sixteen for seamless blending of altos, tenors and basses was a feature of the piece that followed: John Sheppard’s In manus tuas III. Surrounding a work by a contemporary Scottish composer with works by 16th Century composers was an integral part of the plan to show how music from the English Renaissance inspired contemporary British composers, particularly Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten.

With Five Spirituals from Tippett’s A Child of Our Time The Sixteen took their performance to an exhilarating new level of energy and commitment. The singing was relaxed, colourful and heartfelt. In a post-concert interview with Marshall Maguire, Dougan spoke about the way aspects of articulation were modified to match the style of music, but it seemed that there was a softening of consonants throughout so that vocal flow was not interrupted and voices could blend without a barrage of over-articulated final consonants. This is not to say that diction was ever less than admirable. The creative seeming-complexity of Tippett’s arrangements of very familiar material was handled with total assurance as various sections of the ensemble were foregrounded or merged. Among the group of four soloists, Julie Cooper made an outstanding contribution, floating softer passages beautifully with her ethereal, resonant soprano.

For the second half of the program it was back to Tallis with three pieces that began with a reverential account of O nata Lux and ended with a spirited Loquebantur variis linguiis complete with a final “alleluia” that rang out in canon, like a carillon of jubilant bells.

A polished reading of Byrd’s Laudibus in sanctis with elastic rhythmic changes and bouncing “cymbal laudes” preceded Britten’s Choral Dances from Gloriana. Again, the singers’ enthusiasm and individual personalities animated the music with the women making a very sprightly bunch of “Country girls” while the tenors and basses convinced as “Rustics and fishermen”. But it was the warmth and beauty of “Concord” iterations that encapsulated the spirit of the evening. It is possibly no coincidence that Tippett and Britten were both ardent pacifists. Any listener who had come to the concert thinking Britten’s music “too difficult” would surely have left an enlightened convert.

The final “Tallis’s Ordinal” and an encore of Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus provided a spiritually uplifting conclusion to an exceptional concert.

Although the thoughtfully connected variety of this program enabled us to hear the breadth of musical artistry belonging to this virtuoso group of singers and to further appreciate quite a few choral gems of British music, perhaps a program that includes longer works would be a welcome next time. Hopefully, we can look forward to hearing The Sixteen again before another four years have elapsed.

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Heather Leviston attended The Sixteen’s “An Immortal Legacy” at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, on March 12, 2019.