St John’s the Evangelist Church, Upper Norwood, London

Although the repertoire was entirely different, there was something reminiscent of the programmes put together by Scottish Opera’s Derek Clark for the company’s Opera Highlights tours about this quite uncharacteristic concert by Harry Christophers and his top rank professional choir, The Sixteen.

The comparison stands in the eclectic mix of material, the inclusion of a Scottish premiere performance alongside songs everyone knows, and in an interest in the sort of once-unfashionable Victoriana that may now be finding an audience again.

The programme – and the group’s latest album – takes its title from a setting of Longfellow by London-domiciled Italian composer Ciro Pinsuti, whose Good Night, Beloved was once a staple of choral societies. Better known than that piece nowadays were the Londonderry Air (Danny Boy), sung here in Bob Chilcott’s arrangement, and the Eriskay Love Lilt, presented in a new arrangement by baritone and composer Roderick Williams.

The Chilcott, with a very spare piano accompaniment played by Christopher Glynn, alternated unison singing and very accessible harmonies to great effect, while Williams’ arrangement had some technical similarities to the recital’s first Scottish performance of James MacMillan’s Children are a heritage of the Lord. This setting of Psalm 127 is MacMillan at his melodic mellowest, with a lovely descant line over acapella chords.

In what was mostly a secular selection, it sat alongside the works that opened and closed the concert, Edward Naylor’s Vox dicentis and Gustav Holst’s Nunc dimittis. Soprano Julie Cooper was on glorious pure-voiced form on the former, and she and tenor Mark Dobell made notable solo contributions throughout.

Contemporary choral writing was also present in the inclusion of Eric Whitacre’s popular Sleep, while Charles Villers Stanford’s The Blue Bird, setting Victorian poet Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, was another once-ubiquitous song to bracket with the Pinsuti.

This would have been contrast enough, perhaps, but the variety did not end there. Smaller groups of six or just three of the men in the choir added earlier songs that would have sounded more appropriate in a tavern than a church, and explained why the chaps deserved or needed a drink. From the pens of William Cornysh, William Hayes and the ubiquitous Anon, these might have seemed out of place in a Sixteen concert at a previous year’s Perth Festival yet somehow they worked splendidly well here.

Perhaps it is because we have so missed singing in these confined times, but this advert for the range of material to which Christophers’ choristers can apply themselves was exactly what was needed in 2021. Just as pitch-perfect was the conductor’s introduction, lamenting that he and his colleagues were missing the attractions of the Fair City and singing not in St John’s Kirk but in St John the Evangelist Church, Upper Norwood, London.

They also surely lost out on CD sales, as this listener would not have been alone in joining the queue to buy a souvenir of a memorable evening to take home.

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