Friday 17 December 2021

The comfort of the familiar mixed with the intriguing, the lesser known and the downright unfamiliar: The Sixteen at Christmas

The Sixteen at Christmas: The Holly and the Ivy; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Cadogan Hall
Harry Christophers & The Sixteen

The Sixteen at Christmas: The Holly and the Ivy
; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Cadogan Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 December 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Bob Chilcott's Advent Antiphons and Magnificats from Victoria and Arvo Pärt anchor a programme that mixed the familiar and the unfamiliar, the serious and the popularly traditional

We caught the second of the two performances of Harry Christophers and The Sixteen's Christmas programme, The Holly and the Ivy at Cadogan Hall on Thursday 16 December 2021. The programme mixed traditional carols with music by Victoria, Guerrero, Howells, Dom Gregory Murray and Alec Roth, plus Bob Chilcott's Advent Antiphons and Arvo Pärt's Magnificat.

The programme, themed around a message of hope in renewal, had perhaps a slightly more serious cast to it than some years, with the whole anchored around Bob Chilcott's settings of the seven great O Antiphons based on the seven plainchant antiphons used as Magnificat antiphons at the end of Advent. Chilcott's settings were written in 2004 for Reykjavik Cathedral.

Chilcott uses the chant as a starting point, so that the sequence begins with the chant for 'O Sapientia', but then he develops this into a series of richly imaginative movements. Often serious and considered, the music is richly textured with plenty of lush harmonies. 'O Radix Jesse' combined dark and sombre lower voices with aleatoric upper parts in a striking and powerful way. Textures in 'O Clavis David' and 'O Oriens' were also highly mobile and both were strikingly attractive, and the cycle ended with 'O Emmanuel', darkly serious and chant-inspired. 

The O Antiphons were originally sung before the Magnificat, and so Christophers' imaginatively structured programme featured two of these.  To conclude the first half, 'O Radix Jesse' led directly into Arvo Pärt's Magnificat in a performance that mixed spot-on accuracy with a warmth and sense of softer-edges to the sound that gave the music a very human feel, resulting in some strong contrasts between the more austere moments and the rich harmonies. To conclude the concert, 'O Emmanuel' led into Victoria's glorious eight-part Magnificat in a richly sonorous account that combined clarity and vibrancy, and again brought out contrasts but this time in the way Victoria uses a high choir and a low choir.

At the middle of each half there was a Latin hymn featuring the traditional mix of plainchant alternating with polyphony. Victoria's Conditor alme siderum was a Hymn at Vespers in Advent, the regular chant of the hymn contrasting with the contoured passion of Victoria's polyphony, full of wonderful variety with the final verse saving the richest till last. Guerrero's setting of the same hymn was a fascinating comparison, with the discreet passion of Guerrero's music contrasting with the highly mobile chant.

There were six pieces that were traditional, Sans Day Carol, Deck the halls with boughs of holly, The Holly and the Ivy, Carol of the Advent, Wassail Song, and Christmas Eve, some in familiar arrangements and some in new ones. All beautifully done, and with a nice mix of familiar and unfamiliar, along with a welcome featuring of various soloists from the choir.

More recent composers also featured in Christmas music, with Howells' familiar but beautifully rendered A Spotless Rose (with a fine solo from Ben Davies), Alec Roth's highly imaginative Song of the Shepherds that moved well away from its initial folk roots, and Dom Gregory Murray's rather Romantic The Rose of Bethlehem. But for me the highlight was Bob Chilcott's The Shepherd's Carol where Chilcott takes Clive Sansom's rather touching words and makes something rather haunting and lovely from them.

At a time of such uncertainty, it is pleasant to have the comfort of the familiar but this programme managed to mix both the comfortably familiar with the intriguing, the lesser known and the downright unfamiliar, all in finely crafted performances. There was an encore, and who can complain about the ubiquitous Carol of the Bells when so finely performed as here!

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