Review: The Sixteen’s A Chirstmas Carol

First published in The Herald on 10 December, 2014

It’s hard to envisage a classier carol concert than The Sixteen – always a superlative bunch of singers – conducted by their founder Harry Christophers in a programme of Christmas music ranging from the 16th century to 2011. The Usher Hall might not be the cosiest venue but the choir filled the space like it was a cathedral, letting crystalline phrases drift without hurry and mustering enough umph in lower voices to give the sound a proper grounding. It was all fairly well-behaved – the ‘gloria’ in Angels from the Realms of Glory more graceful than exuberant – but the blend and polish of the voices was hard to fault.

The backbone of the programme was the Gregorian chant O Magnum Mysterium in settings by Tomas Luis de Victoria, Morten Lauridsen and Palestrina; of the latter we heard a motet and the Kyrie and Gloria of the sublime mass O Magnum Mysterium, plus the Nativity hymn A solis ortu cardine and the alternating lush polyphony and stern plainchant of Magnificat quarti toni. The Sixteen’s Palestrina is shapely, full-bodied and pristine: it’s them in their element.

The rest of the programme surveyed 20th century carols. I’ve never heard Gustav Holst’s In the Bleak Midwinter sung with such subtle shading; every inflection of Christina Rossetti’s poem was audible. Christophers took his time with Vaughan Williams’s O Little Town, whose part-writing has never sounded so smooth. John Ireland’s The Holy Boy and Charles Ives’s A Christmas Carol made a beautiful pair, both of them tender and lilting. The singers let themselves really sink into the irresistible chords of Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down, while the more synthetic charms of Lauridsen’s O Magnum and Will Todd’s My Lord Has Come sounded duly ecstatic.