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GRAMOPHONE (03/2016)
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Reviewer: Alexandra Coghlan

Just over a year ago, Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent released an album of music by William Byrd (‘Infelix ego’ – PHI, 1/15), challenging the longheld supremacy of British vocal ensembles on their musical home turf. The interpretations were raw, confronting – more disquieting than strictly beautiful. Now The Sixteen are reclaiming the repertoire with their signature full-bloom sound, exchanging asceticism for generosity and warmth.


The discography for this repertoire – motets by Byrd and Arvo Pärt – is now so extensive and so excellent that choosing among it is just a question of preference, of priorities. Those favouring sonic beauty above all else will find ‘The Deer’s Cry’ an essential addition. Larger forces and fuller voices give The Sixteen a textural depth Stile Antico and The Tallis Scholars neither seek nor attain, thickening the sound without obscuring the architectural workings of these complex pieces of polyphony.


As John Milsom’s booklet-notes reassure us, the fiendish contrapuntal goings-on of works like Diliges Dominum and Miserere mihi can’t easily be perceived by the ear, but such is the sense of purpose, the surging energy of Harry Christophers’s direction, that we never lose our bearings as the composer’s mathematical calculation unfolds. Byrd’s mighty Tribue Domine has the same combination of movement and stillness, of miniature detail and large-scale scope as a fan-vaulted ceiling – a miracle of balance and pacing only outdone by Tallis’s Miserere nostri, whose counterpoint seems to hang suspended in the air, so deftly do Christophers and his singers manipulate time.


Yet the same warmth and humanity that makes The Sixteen’s Byrd so appealing sometimes works against their Pärt. So much of this music’s impact comes from what it doesn’t do, and there’s just too much shape, too much personality here for the chilly precision of the composer’s ‘tintinnabuli’ effect to find its mark.

But it’s hard to wish greater restraint of such glorious singing. If the Nunc dimittis and The Deer’s Cry do tend to the symphonic, it’s an approach this music can take, yielding an unusual richness that only heightens the composer’s debt to the Russian Orthodox choral tradition.


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