The Sixteen at Christmas
Harry Christophers, Frances Kelly (harp)
The Anvil, Basingstoke, 4 December 2019
As their 40th anniversary year draws to a close, The Sixteen’s seasonal tour of their ‘Sixteen at Christmas‘ programme stopped by at Basingstoke’s Anvil concert hall for a varied selection of music for Advent and Christmas. Their focus was on traditional medieval and 20th and 21st-century composers, most of the latter influenced by former. Until the Ding dong encore, it avoided all the usual carols of childhood memory. The key piece was the concluding Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten, a sequence of pieces based on medieval texts that he started writing during a 1942 Atlantic crossing.
The highlights for me, apart from the Britten, were the other contemporary pieces. The gently shifting textures of Matthew Martin’s 2006 close harmony setting of Adam lay y-bounden made for a refreshing contrast to the bounce of the more usual setting. The Swedish composer Jan Sandström’s evocative 1990 setting of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (originally Det är en ros utsprungen, but here sung to the English version of the German text: Lo, how a rose e’er blooming) was written for two choirs, one singing Michael Praetorius’s well-known 1609 harmonisation very slowly while the second choir hum a slowly evolving ethereal background texture. It can be heard in its Swedish version here, sung by Siglo de Oro.
Despite the request in the programme to reserve applause until after the various groups of pieces, every piece was interrupted by the audience, something that Harry Christophers only manage to stop after the first of the Ceremony of Carols movements. It made for a particularly unfortunate disruption between the Sandström piece and the simple harmonies of the following little 2012 Balulalow by James Burton, using a text that Britten also used in his Ceremony of Carols. It can be heard here, sung by the Ora Singers. Cecilia McDowall’s neo-medieval 2012 setting Of a Rose completed that section, albeit again interrupted by applause.
One hundred years ago, in 1919, as the conscientious objector Peter Warlock learnt of the appalling sacrifice of the First World War, he wrote his Delius-inspired Corpus Christi carol, using the textural allusion to the Holy Grail to reflect the horrors of the war. Pieces by Holst and Walton also reflected the music of the early 20th century.
The highlight for me was the performance of Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. Frances Kelly swapped a Gothic harp for a full-sized modern harp and provided beautifully sensitive accompaniments as well as the harp solo Interlude movement. Britten’s harp writing is frequently built on a simple repetition of notes or little themes, giving a foundation to the voice.
For some reason, only some of the soloists were named in The Sixteen’s programme, making it rather unfair to pick out only those that were named, or to guess the names of the others. One particularly fine un-named tenor featured in Angelus ad virginem, with an impressive use of ornaments, and a similar soprano in the Warlock. I mention one of the named soloists though, soprano Katy Hill in Britten’s That yongë child! The singing of the 20-strong choir was exemplary. In many of the soprano solo moments, I would have preferred rather less vibrato, although within the overall choral sound this was not too obtrusive, apart from meaning that the cadences were not as calm as they could be.