Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Sixteen/Christophers @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

9 December 2010

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

The Sixteens carol concert, The Angel Gabriel, may have seemed more conservative than last years Sweet was the song, in that it featured no lute accompaniments or soloists positioned theatrically on stools, but it also felt thematically richer. Working from the religious thinker Gershom Sholems notion of the divinity of daily life it focused on how the Godly mingles with the everyday in the Christmas story. Christ is born in a cattle trough to a carpenter, and the first people to see him are humble shepherds inspired to leave their flocks. As the ultimate representation of the human meeting the divine, the Virgin Mary featured prominently in the programme, with the annunciation giving rise to the concerts title.

The evening included traditional works whose authors are lost to the sands of time, sixteenth and seventeenth century composers like Victoria and Praetorius, and more recent or contemporary names such as Vaughan Williams and Prt. In tackling these works, the choir, performing a capella throughout, demonstrated almost every element that makes it so great.

First, there was the purity and beauty of its sopranos, as revealed in the first verse of This is the truth sent from above, arranged by Vaughan Williams. Praetoriuss Magnificat Quini toni a 8 also demonstrated their superb interaction with the rest of the choir. In verse after verse the sound increasingly radiated out from this section, before everything was reduced for a shorn down episode in which the sopranos once again took the lead.

Praetoriuss Quem pastores laudavere also revealed the choirs peerless ability to blend its voices. It divided into four, with each section singing a line in turn, so that the sound circled around the group. It was not just the overarching unity that this brought to the carol that made the performance work, but the way in which that unity was achieved by allowing each section to assert its own individual sound.

The concert also revealed the ability of the choir, and director Harry Christophers, to shape phrases. Works such as Richard Derings Quem vidistis, pastores? and Victorias Salve Regina a 5 push and pull tempi around quite considerably, and every transition in speed was managed superbly. The resulting pieces sounded so seamless that the phrasing employed seemed so obvious to the listener. It was just the type of obvious that only a genius like Christophers can devise in the first place.

Finally, the concert revealed the strength of the singers as soloists. Soprano Julie Cooper led Vaughan Williamss Down in yon forest, her strong, strident voice prevented from ever feeling brash by the beauty in her tone. She was joined by tenor Jeremy Budd in Warlocks Corpus Christi and his refined but resonant sound provided an effective contrast.

The choice of carols also enabled us to compare Byrd and Victorias O magnum mysterium while the most recent composer to be represented was the seventy-five year old Arvo Prt. His O Weisheit provided a wondrous opening to the concert with the altos (three or four of whom were male) taking the lead, and the other voices under or overlaying their line to accentuate phrases.

The evening ended with the audience joining Christophers and The Sixteen to sing carols in the QEH foyer, and anyone who wanted to relax after this exhilarating experience could have done so at the bar with a glass of mulled wine made to Harrys own recipe, of course!

Further details of Queen Elizabeth Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk

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