THE SIXTEEN, founded by a former choral scholar of Magdalen College, Oxford, Harry Christophers, is under way with its latest “Choral Pilgrimage”, touring cathedrals, minsters, and chapels as far afield as Llandaff, Truro, Blackburn, and Edinburgh. It is exploring a revealing programme.
Harry Christophers has purified his Sixteen (or more usually 18) to produce a truly beautiful, meticulously balanced, motivated, and masterly quality of singing.
His tours have made some exhilarating pairings — of Purcell with Sir James MacMillan, for instance, or of sundry early composers with that most modern of medieval musicians, the Estonian Arvo Pärt.
The 2017 tour pairs Palestrina with Poulenc. The programme notes at All Saints’, Northampton (to which I contributed a small fraction myself), explain the various lives of these two master musicians, so different in era and in personal life, and yet strangely, it seems, close in their religious affirmation (Palestrina reached his zenith in or around the Sistine Chapel in Rome, but gained valued experience during a brief stint in the Tuscan hill town that bears his name, formerly Roman Praeneste).
Poulenc’s transformation from artistic musical comedian, a member of the go-ahead group Les Six and a kind of benign cross between Erik Satie, the Cubist-Dadaist-Surrealist poet Apollinaire, and Jacques Tati’s hilarious Monsieur Hulot, took place when perhaps his closest gay musical friend, composer, coeval, and probably lover, Pierre-Octave Ferroud, was killed in an horrific car crash.
Driven south to Rocamadour, on one of the main pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela, he experienced a transformation. Put off religion in his teens, he rediscovered the Catholic faith, thenceforth the touchstone and very essence of his being, and saw his sacred music as the most important he ever composed. He wrote more than the more fastidious Duruflé, and his output is just as good. This intriguing and unexpectedly apt and sensitive juxtaposition — passages from Palestrina’s The Song of Songs offset by Poulenc’s Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence, and hauntingly mysterious, war-and occupation-ravaged cycle Un soir de neige (text by his regular associate Paul Éluard), or the composers’ very different and yet somehow tantalisingly close settings of Salve Regina — made fabulous material for this most expressive of choirs.
Christophers capered and cavorted through “Vinea mea electa”, as he always does, and his choristers, men and that beauteously articulate, unmatchable top line of women and girls, capered with him.
Yet, when calm, serenity, religious awe, and wide-eyed devotion were called for, Christophers, while scrupulously elegant, drew all of that, and more, from them with his unique brand of polish, insight, and accomplishment. For all the seeming hauteurs of the European Renaissance and early or high Baroque, a Sixteen concert, with or without their ravishing period-instrument orchestra, is always a truly personal occasion, a magical and intimate experience, even when addressing mass audiences in a huge cathedral such as Winchester, York, or Wells.
If you can catch them in London (St James’s, Spanish Place, Wednesday 6 September), Rochester, Liverpool (the Metropolitan Cathedral), St Albans, Durham, Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirk, or even this year’s city of culture, Hull (Holy Trinity Church, Thursday 26 October), I do urge you to do so. You will find it a truly sensational, transforming experience.