40 years old this year, passionate period choir The Sixteen still presents classical works with all the vitality of those of the age of their name.
Numbering a little over 50 these days, from whom a little over half will perform split between choir and orchestra, there is a gentleness and ease to what they do, indicative of the long-term relationships built between members – a distinct and audible difference from when even good choirs buy in random jobbing musicians for a tour.
It is rare and wonderful to hear an ensemble play with so little individual ego visible. There is a lightness in the musicianship – a true coming together. A smoothness with no showboating, and no bombast. Hell, even the tuning up has a calm and delicacy to it, making it less the traditional cacophonic preamble to the playing proper than My Bloody Valentine rescored by Arvo Pärt in an eighteenth century timewarp.
This gentleness is especially unusual when it comes to something as familiar as the ‘Brandenburg Concertos’, here presented with a subtle and delicate flowing legato. The basso has a beautiful depth of tonality. The commitment to period instruments (violone instead of double bass, traverso flutes and proper hautbois) unfurls sounds unfamiliar to modern ears. It’s wonderful to hear period instruments in a period setting with something approaching the intended acoustics – in this case Rochester Cathedral, where the current tour comes to its end (they’ll be back in September with their must-see Choral Pilgrimage).
‘Singet dem Herrn (BWV 225)’ flows like water, counterpuntal melodies streaming in rivulets over which the sopranos bounce lightly, each note like a raindrop. Movements end on perfect diminuendos into silence. They are not afraid of a silence – a moment to compose and rise into the next movement with grace, tenderness and a palpable loving respect. There is a brightness and clarity in the execution of this technically challenging work. No lazy legato slurring between notes.
Katy Hill delivers a flawless solo for ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo (Cantata BWV 191)’, presenting an astonishing depth of tone for a soprano. So good too to hear a natural balance with Jeremy Budd’s tenor in terms of volume. No fighting to be heard here – again, just a delicacy and space for the music to gently breathe. On a similar note, I found the brass section resolutely not standing out at any point during the programme. So refreshing not to be overwhelmed by overexcited horns at a baroque concert.
‘Jesus bliebet meine Freude (from Cantata BWV 147)’ is presented at a surprisingly fair clip, in the native German, and all the more the joy of man’s desiring for it. The Cathedral children’s choir joined for this – worth catching in another context if you can.
The main draw of course is ‘The Magnificat in D (BWV 243)’, and it doesn’t disappoint, with Alexandra Kidgell’s tone rounded and emotive during her solo, perfectly supported by celli and reeds (on that front, there is a rich, warm heart to these period instruments not found in the tone of contemporary ones).
The standout moments for me were Daniel Collins’ solos – an alto, his voice has an astonishing purity. ‘Et misericordia…’ can be touched by melodrama, but not a bit of it here. A soaring, drawing in to the mercy articulated with such emotion that I found my made-up eyes a little pandafied afterwards. His second solo accompanied by the most delicious flutes was similarly extraordinary. ‘Esurientes implevit bonis et divites dimisit inanes’ can be a bit… well, twee and inanes. This rendition had depth, texture, a sincerity and a serenity borne of lightness (again, that lightness – such a departure for the playing of most Bach).
Throughout, I found myself people-watching the musicians. They stand (and perhaps this is part of the difference) and they have a freedom of movement invited by the lack of furniture (except for the seated cellists). They seem to be wanting to skip or do a little dance of delight. It’s like watching kids at Christmas. None of the awkwardness or self-importance so often seen at classical gigs, there is real delight clearly visible in every note sung or played (and after each piece, a beaming).
In a programme of devotional works, I found myself grinning, wanting to join them in flipping my head and shimmying a little. There is no sense of that being sacrilegious, more David dancing before the Lord. Harry Christophers, The Sixteen’s founder is so wonderful to watch in that respect. Sprightly in his engagement, he gesticulates like a wizard in springtime. There is such joy in how he conducts, it’s infectious. The Sixteen are quite simply the very best at what they do.