Remaining true to the spirit of the season, and its own high standards of performance, The Sixteen presented in its concert, Sweet was the song, a superlative set of Christmas carols and music.
Director Harry Christophers is acutely aware of both the religious and social function that carols have always served, and this concert included those ranging from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries, with some featuring twice under different arrangements.
The opening piece, an eighteenth century arrangement of Veni, veni Emmanuel, which saw the men and women alternate on the verses, revealed the choirs splendid tonal qualities as well as its trademark ability to blend its voices so expertly. Similarly, the varying tempi in Waltons Make we joy now in this fest were managed superbly, so that the relatively punchy opening to each refrain felt seamlessly linked to the far more languid cries of Eya, Eya, Eya!.
Wonderful solos were delivered by soprano Grace Davidson in Sweet was the song the Virgin sang and tenor Mark Dobell in Byrds Out of the orient, crystal skies. Both were accompanied by David Miller on the lute, who also contributed to pieces such as the sixteenth century Coventry Carol. Other than this, however, all of the evenings singing was a capella.
Nevertheless, despite the talents of the individual singers, the choirs true strength lies in its ability to work its voices together to produce such a unique sound. As a result, there were a few weaker pieces where, perhaps because the wrong blend of soloists was chosen, the performance was not as coherent as it might have been. In particular, the fifteenth century Nowell, nowell: Out of your sleep felt rather rough and ready by The Sixteens standards. True, the medieval piece demands a certain raucous quality, but I couldnt help feeling that this choir simply sounds better tackling later, more lyrical, music.
On many other occasions, however, The Sixteen successfully introduced dramatic elements such as when the quartet sang from behind a screen in Brittens A Hymn to the Virgin, and the four soloists sat on stools or leant at the side of the stage for his Shepherds Carol. Similarly, in the encore, Quem pastores laudavere, the choir stood in four groups, each singing a line in turn, which handed additional texture to the carol as each group possessed its own unique sound.
Unfortunately, the Queen Elizabeth Hall seemed a rather sterile interior in which to be hearing Christmas music, and it felt sad that today people have to go to a concert to hear such religious pieces, which tends to reduce them to the level of pure entertainment. It is not the Southbank Centres job to concern itself with the religious state of Britain, but, with the National Theatre and Barbican already dealing in site specific performances, it could provide appropriate context to the music by staging next years concert in a church.
Nevertheless, with Christophers and The Sixteen leading the audience in carols in the QEH foyer after the performance, and mulled wine made to Harrys own recipe being served at the bar, the evening still came with a healthy dose of festive cheer.