25 Aug 2006


Harry Christophers and The Sixteen have a particular affinity for pre-modern polyphony, as their long discography, teeming with the music of the Eton Choirbook, assorted Renaissance masters, Handel, Bach, and others, amply shows.

However, they have also long cast a wide net in terms of repertory, frequently performing and recording twentieth-century works, as well. Most memorably, sometimes the counterpoint between the two is especially rich, as in their recording of two settings of the Scottish devotional text, “O bone Jesu,” one the famous nineteen-voice setting by Robert Carver (16c) and the other a new setting by James MacMillan, commissioned by the ensemble (“An Eternal Harmony,” Coro 16010 [2002]). With this present recording, Ikon, the ensemble underscores its breadth by presenting an anthology of works that are, for the most part, Orthodox in style and aura. Liturgical works by Rachmaninov, Kalinnikov and Chesnokov are prominent in the program, joined by the modern musical mystics, Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, the latter’s work also rich in Orthodox evocations. To these Christophers also adds a few works by Stravinsky—originally with Slavonic texts, but revised to bear Latin texts—MacMillan, and Holst.

If Orthodoxy is the strongest theme, there is a somber secondary theme of death, as well. The program includes both Tavener’s “Song for Athene,” famously sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales (1997) and his “Exhortation,” a commission for the Festival of Remembrance at Royal Albert Hall (2003), setting John Maxwell Edmonds’ profoundly moving words, “They shall not grow old . . .”; MacMillan’s “A Child’s Prayer” is a memorial work for the school children slain in Dunblane, Scotland in 1996; Pärt’s “The Woman with the Alabaster Box” brings Jesus’s burial into focus; and the two settings of the Canticle of Simeon (Kalinnikov and Holst) set the words of a righteous man at the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, now free to die, having seen his Saviour.

Much here is beautifully sung, with exquisite blend and tuning, well-crafted phrases, and a powerful dynamic range all evident. And this is surely what we have come to expect from The Sixteen. Unsurprisingly, the singers often adopt here a warmer, more vibrant sound than is their usual. They are obviously well attuned to the notion that no one sound meets all needs. However, despite the added warmth and vibrancy, I find the sound still identifiably to be one formed in the English tradition, and thus, although unflaggingly beautiful, a sound somewhat at odds with the Russian tenor of the program. It seems as though the clarity and focus of the tone—a glory of English choirs—overrides the need for a more characteristic heft of sound.

The Englishness of the sound is most at issue in the works of Rachmaninov, Kalinnikov, and Chesnokov, although the latter’s “Tebe poyem” finds The Sixteen’s basses impressively commanding in the low register. Christophers also brings to this particular piece an extraordinarily controlled slowness that allows the romantically wistful harmonies to unfold with expressive weight.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Englishness of the sound serves the music of Pärt and Stravinsky well. In Pärt’s “De Profundis” much is spare and minimal, a musical and spiritual austerity enhanced by the clarity of the sound. Similarly, Stravinsky’s “Ave Maria” and “Pater noster” want little in the way of inflection, and the pure, focused sound here helps to keep the subjective at bay.

Admirers of English choral singing in general, and The Sixteen in particular, will find this an expressive and moving recording. Certainly I count myself among their number. Some will wish for a more Russian sound in some of the pieces. That said, you will have to search far to find more sensitive readings of these deeply spiritual works.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College