The Sixteen: A Choral Odyssey review – an inspired journey through music and history

The Sixteen made a smart decision in choosing Simon Russell Beale as guide to their online A Choral Odyssey, a series of filmed performances in different venues. The actor, who was a boy chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral and no doubt could sing a ground bass if required, managed to play the curious innocent. No breathless presenter enthusiasm from him. Instead, in the face of glorious music, superbly sung by this much-loved vocal ensemble, Russell Beale’s jaw dropped, eyes widened, frown deepened. Despite on occasion falling almost silent, he still managed to do his job, which included teasing explanations from the Sixteen’s founder-conductor Harry Christophers, a model of clarity, who put the music in a technical, social and political context.

So there was plenty to chew on in these well devised programmes. The relationship of music to its original place and purpose is key to the Sixteen, as demonstrated for the past 20 years in their annual choral pilgrimages around the UK’s churches and cathedrals. This 2020 Odyssey was a worthwhile alternative. In the chapel of Magdalen College, Oxford, they performed works by two of its former scholars, the Tudor composers Richard Davy and, one of the greatest of all, John Sheppard.

The Spanish Renaissance composer Francisco Guerrero was enthralled, hardly too strong a term, by the Virgin Mary, repeatedly celebrating her in music. With its overarching mosaic of the Madonna, the Catholic church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory, in London’s Soho, was an ideal place in which to hear Guerrero’s rich textures and taut rhythms – as well as to hear about his escape from pirates among whose number were armed robbers and “even, perhaps, Lutherans”. In contrast, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe provided a candlelit setting for lusty street ballads and catches by Henry Purcell. This inspiring series, at £50, or £10 per concert, with more to come, is available until the end of January.