Greyfriars Kirk is the setting for the choir’s Scottish date on their 2018 Choral Pilgrimage, which concentrates on nine works from two composers separated by over 400 years: Benjamin Britten and William Cornysh (there were actually two composers called William Cornysh (father and son), but the attribution for different pieces has been lost in the mists of time, and for the purposes of this concert they are treated as one). Despite the difference in era, both Britten and Cornysh wrote secular and sacred works, using Latin and English texts. This produces a programme that is well balanced and provides the choir with a variety of diverse pieces to showcase their ample talent.
The concert opens with Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin, based on an anonymous poem that he set to music whilst still a schoolboy. The Sixteen (now actually comprising eighteen singers) split into two choirs for this piece, with one group at either end of the nave creating a truly ethereal effect.
Every singer is very exposed in such a small choir, and as would be expected from this world-class ensemble, every voice is exquisite. Particular highlights are the rendition of the Cornysh ballad, Ah Robin, gentle Robin, sung hauntingly by three male voices. The Cornysh pieces, whilst appearing somewhat less challenging than Britten to perform, include some very elaborate melodic lines, with the Salve Regina being a case in point.
Britten’s Advance Democracy was written in the years preceding the second world war. Using poet Randall Swingler’s text, which is an appeal against dictatorship, Britten wrote a piece full of urgency and foreboding that resolves into a hopeful anthem.
The concert concludes with Britten’s Sacred and Profane, a set of eight medieval lyrics that Britten set to music at the very end of his life. Possibly the most complex piece of the program, the texts range from a contemplation of Christ on the cross to evocations of winter and springtime.
The blend of voices, clarity of tone, perfect pitch and the way in which Christophers is able to control every nuance with the smallest of hand gestures, this all serves to confirm The Sixteen’s deserved reputation as world class.