On this disc of holiday music we get a mix of modern Christmas carols, plus the nearly indispensable Benjamin Britten Ceremony of Carols. Besides Britten, composers include William Walton, Herbert Howells, Peter Warlock, Peter Racine Fricker, Edmund Rubbra, John Tavener, Peter Hayward, John Gardner, and Kenneth Leighton. The chorus sings a capella for the most part, though discrete accompaniments do sound out, from the harp in the Britten Ceremony of Carols; from organ, piano; even from lute in Peter Hayward's single carol.
Although all these works are modern, they represent a mix of the familiar and the not so familiar. So far, so good. This music well deserves to be heard; though it sounds quite difficult to sing this well, and so may be a stretch too far beyond the choral capacities of most local groups, and even many semi-professional or professional groups.
The choral technique is impeccable, a paragon of its type. The only quibble might be about the singers adopting straight tone, notable for its purity and clean edges and utter bulls eye target balancing acts; and all that in chromatic modern choral harmonies that can slip so out of tune and so off track so easily that singing this music cannot really be as effortless as The Sixteen make it sound. Despite covering the expressive gamut, this group actually hardly ever seems to break a choral sweat. The overall effect is almost more instrumental than vocal; too cool, too good to be real, to be true? Whether we are hearing out the phenomenal breath control, the deft balancing of multiple musical lines across the chorus, the precipitous Aurora Borealis Sky chromatics, or just the musical-vocal sense of the texts and the music - the rich choral effect is amazing almost beyond amazement.
The Britten Ceremony is taken at a fast clip. The Sixteen does in single-breathed phrases moving ever so deftly in multiple musical lines what other singing groups need to accomplish by slowing down and spreading the harmonies out. Brisk, yes; rushed, well not really? I also found myself returning to appreciate the special role of the harpist - not something a listener can say honestly about many enjoyable readings of this choral cycle. For once the harp interlude that sketches a night's wide, wintery skies populated by the angelic singing of The Sixteen really gains depth of tonal color, and suggests drama and shape, not just contrast. Bravo, harpist. (Unnamed, but surely deserving of a byline? Along with the organist, pianist, lute player?)
Nor is the venue named in the booklet. No complaints about the sound. Surely choral singing of this super-human musical and technical stratospheric height would even be more uncanny in super audio surround? Surely it is possible for other choruses to put a warmer, more human face on these carols; but the gain would not be by all that much, and in this amazing instance a listener might gain insight into just how high technique conveys and achieves musical personality, too.
As one of Britten's carol texts says, "If thou would foil thy foes with joy ..."? I can tell this disc will be a busy repeat player during the current holiday season; and probably back on and off the keeper shelves through the rest of the year. I really would like to hear The Sixteen take on USA choral composer Eric Whitacre. In super audio surround. Well, Christmas time is wishing, anticipating, opening up to fabulous possibilities, divine and human.
This music is the sound track for all that holiday season of joy, smack dab in the middle of the winter solstice when some cultures feared that the sun had died forever. Five stars.