It would be difficult to imagine a group of singers more capable of transforming a concert hall into a traditional place of worship than The Sixteen. Under its founder and conductor, Harry Christophers, this celebrated British ensemble tuned into the outstanding acoustic of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall and from the first phrase found a resonance that made the uplifting plainsong Antiphon “Regina caeli laetari” (Rejoice, Queen of Heaven) truly sing.
In a program encompassing works by Palestrina, Allegri and the renowned contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan, this resonance combined with vocal excellence and impeccable musicality to take the audience on a journey that was illuminating and deeply satisfying.
The ensemble is not one that tries to replicate the forces used by composers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; there were no trebles and no castrati among these ‘sixteen’ singers, who actually numbered eighteen with the two extra sopranos. But the voices of the six sopranos were so pure in tone and so seemingly effortless in production that the final effect may well have been closer to the original than a performance by a modern all-male cathedral choir. Their reserves of power and capacity to balance and blend were astonishing.
In fact, a careful blending of all voices, especially in quieter passages, where the ensemble became a single instrument, was a feature of the evening. Perhaps this was used to most striking effect in the encore when MacMillan’s closely-packed harmonies, so precisely pitched by the singers, resulted in overtones that created a mysterious sense of an extra instrumental presence.
James MacMillan was not alone in surprising with his musical creativity. Anybody expecting yet another standard performance of Allegri’s Miserere would have been bowled over by The Sixteen’s approach. For all the beauty and appeal of the accustomed version, extensive research by musicologists is to a large extent the basis of a new version that, in the words of the program notes, “aims to portray the evolution of the work”. Thanks to a quartet of singers placed at the back of the hall, the audience was enveloped in glorious sound. Additional embellishments by Harry Christophers made the excitement of the work much more than a succession of high Cs. The high notes were there in the closing verses, but the “abbellimenti” were dramatic and thrilling as executed by Emilia Morton’s stunning voice. Warm and lustrous, the ease and limpid purity of her tone was a constant pleasure whether featured or blending in perfect harmony with others.
If performances in the Sistine Chapel resembled what was heard on Thursday night, it is little wonder that the virtuosity of the embellishments against a finely judged pacing of the underlying music was a must-hear attraction of the Grand Tour. Apparently, even the young Mozart was sufficiently enthused to notate Allegri’s famous work from memory and make a return trip to check on his accuracy.
James MacMillan’s setting of Miserere for eight-part choir is a long and complex piece reflecting the changing sentiments of Psalm 51. Expressions of penitential guilt lead finally to those of hope. Male and female voices alternate and extensive use is made of a soft hummed drone beneath varied chanting. Rich bass notes, a lovely solo soprano, close harmonies and stylish grace notes added to the interest and power of this impressive work so expertly realized by the singers.
O Radiant Dawn, the other work by Macmillan in the second half of the program, is a compelling work – almost addictive in its glorious invocation, “Come, come…” and repeated “Amen”. Effective use of short silences and a quasi “Scotch snap” in the melodic line were combined with references to works by other composers to produce something quite special.
Vocal strength in all sections made for remarkable clarity as parts were delineated in a wonderful interweaving of voices in Palestrina’s works. Regina caeli laetari (what a joyously triumphant outburst in the “Alleluia”!), Stabat Mater and Missa Regina caeli were sheer pleasure.
The Sixteen’s mastery of this exacting program of sacred choral music ensured that a capacity audience was presented with an experience that was both musically and spiritually enriching.
Heather Leviston reviewed The Sixteen: The Queen of Heaven at the Melbourne Recital Centre on March 5, 2015.