Professional ensemble groups like The Sixteen led by Harry Christophers, and the Tallis Scholars led by Peter Phillips, have had a huge impact on the rediscovery of church music over the past twenty years, and while Radio 3 listeners may turn their noses up at the likes of Classic FM who call The Sixteen ‘the voices’ of their station, they too have played their part in putting this genre firmly back into the public consciousness.
Christophers is not only a champion of polyphony but is a huge promoter of English cathedrals, with The Sixteen’s annual Choral Pilgrimage tours including many of the greatest architectural examples in the country; thereby helping to reinvigorate the public’s enjoyment of hearing church music performed in its natural environment rather than often impersonal concert halls.
When it was announced that The Sixteen would be performing Bach’s Magnificat, generally regarded as the composer’s masterpiece, at eight UK venues including my local cathedral Bath Abbey, it was an unsurprising sell out here – unsurprising as pretty much all The Sixteen’s concerts sell out. Touring internationally to some of the most sublime venues in the world, Bath Abbey certainly makes for an imposing backdrop and it was an especially buzzy event due to it being the last day of the city’s annual BachFest. It promised to be a staggering finale.
Now in their 38th year The Sixteen have long been considered one of the world’s leading ensembles, with both a mixed choir and a period-instrument orchestra (including violone) that bring to life everything from early a cappella scores to grandiose eighteenth century church music.
As always, even if you’re not a classical music buff, a quick scan of the The Sixteen’s programme puts the selected works into context, along with the composer’s life and times and the impact of any given piece upon his larger career. Opening with the much loved Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and the Motet: Singet dem Hern ein neues Lied BWV 225 (a work it is believed Mozart would have heard when he visited Leipzig’s Thomasschule in 1789), it gave us a chance to hear Bach at his most exuberant.
Cantata No 191: Gloria in excelsis Deo featured solo performances by soprano Katy Hill and tenor Jeremy Budd, both of whom were sublime and (for me) proved the stand-out soloists of the night. Vocally, the sound of the choir is astonishingly pure and bright, while the orchestra achieved a true Baroque sound and sense of authenticity that has defeated most other ensembles.
A brief pause enabled the choir and orchestra to muster themselves for the energetic second half, (along with giving the audience the opportunity to purchase the CD), overall a well constructed programme celebrating Bach at his prime; the Sinfonia to Cantata No 156 being a stirring and suitably gentle forerunner to the flamboyant Magnificat in D major BWV 243, the final and most life-affirming work of the evening.
Originally thought to have been composed by Bach in Leipzig for the 1723 Christmas Vespers, the Magnificat is the pregnant Mary’s song of thanksgiving from St Luke’s Gospel in which she recognises her divine role as the mediator between God and man, although some historians now believe the piece may have been composed as early as July 1723, less than a month into Bach’s tenure as Leipzig’s new Cantor of the Thomasschule at Thomaskirche, effectively Director of Music in the principal churches of the town, the Nikolaikirche and the Paulinerkirche.
Either way, this hugely ambitious composition was designed to make a bold impression on its hearers, with a scoring for five soloists, a five-part choir and an orchestra. Hugely acclaimed in its day, it was the natural precursor to Bach’s renowned St John Passion the following year and the St Matthew Passion in 1727, and you can certainly see Christophers’ enthusiasm for the piece as the chorus gave their final burst of energy, leaving us all well and truly uplifted. Christophers once (and rightly so) declared the Magnificat “all too short”, but perhaps Bach was wise enough to leave his audience wanting more, a feeling that was certainly mirrored at the end of The Sixteen’s tremendous rendition. To play Bach one must have precision flooding through their fingertips (and vocal chords) and this lot have it in spades. Amen.
The next Bath Bachfest will take place from 22-24 February 2018. The Sixteen’s Bach Magnificent tour continues to Chichester on 23rd February, Worcester on 24th February and Rochester on 25th February 2017. For more information on this and forthcoming concerts please visit the website. Photography of The Sixteen courtesy of Arnaud Stevenson.