Review: The Sixteen – An Immortal Legacy, City Recital Hall

David Barmby

Smooth, cool and gracious, one of the best ensembles of its kind.
Review: The Sixteen – An Immortal Legacy, City Recital Hall

Image via thesixteen.com

Given that printed programs ran out long before the doors closed, the presenters may not have expected such a large audience for The Sixteen’s performance on Saturday night. Currently on tour to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, The Sixteen, a British vocal consort specialising in 16th century polyphony, was founded in 1979 by Harry Christophers. The 18 singers on this occasion were directed by the ensemble’s associate conductor Eamon Dougan.

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Excellent blend, almost perfect tuning, warmth of tone and meticulously managed phrasing were evident throughout. Of its tradition this ensemble is one of the best of its kind in the world and on this occasion gave a sound that was more open, free and flexible in style than I have previously witnessed.

Sopranos engaged minimal vibrato, three countertenors (falsettists) and a female alto delivered a smooth-as-silk line, while tenors and rock-solid basses contributed a perfect composite. This tradition might be called ‘collegiate’, as many of its singers have come through the tradition of university vocal ensembles and are well-versed in this repertoire. But it was a pleasure to see veteran British vocal consort artist soprano (sadly misspelled in the printed program) Sally Dunkley on stage. She has toured Australia many times before over decades as a member of The Tallis Scholars.

The program comprised a collection of Latin Catholic music and post-Reformation English music highlighting the work of Thomas Tallis, John Sheppard and William Byrd, with some secular madrigals included. More recent repertoire was represented in the work of James MacMillan, Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett. Orlando Gibbons’ glorious The Silver Swan, offering the legend of swans only singing once before their death, was memorable, presenting a metaphor of the majestic elegance of a swan passing by though there being strong work taking place beneath. Tallis’s six-part setting of the Pentecost motet Loqubantur variis linguis with its exquisitely rich final ‘Alleluia’ and the profound, Eucharistic five-part setting O sacrum convivium were stand-out highlights fully justifying the program’s title: Immortal Legacy.

As an encore, a grateful audience was rewarded with an exquisite performance of William Byrd’s Ave Verum, truly a masterpiece of the period. We hope that it will not be long before The Sixteen returns to Australia once again.

It was a pity that the presenters did not provide a more satisfactory printed program including texts and translations, biographies and listing soloists which would have added much more to the audience experience.

4 stars out of 5: ★★★★

The Sixteen
City Recital Hall, Angel Place
Saturday, 9 March, 2019
7.30pm

Presented by City Recital Hall

About the author

David Barmby is former head of artistic planning of Musica Viva Australia, director of music at St James' Anglican Church, King Street, artistic administrator of Bach 2000 (Melbourne Festival), the Australian National Academy of Music and Melbourne Recital Centre.