Does music add substance to words or is music inspired by them? Songs of departure and farewell are deeply rooted in the great tradition of British choral music, nourished by ancient myths of testing journeys, wayside transformations and homecomings. The transcendent nature of music and the power of poetry to challenge and alter perceptions of reality – harnessed by English composers over many centuries – flow through a programme that invites contemplation of life and death, of love and loss, creation and eternity. In a journey covering six centuries of musical history, The Sixteen performs a cappella anthems with powerful texts by writers as varied as Edmund Spenser, Christopher Fry and W.H. Auden.
Coming on the heels of some rather mediocre efforts, The Sixteen Men of Tain is startlingly superb. Holdsworth has stripped away the distracting banks of keyboards and allowed his soaring, gliding guitar to shine through in a way it hasn't since the 1980s…
First and foremost, Domenico Scarlatti is regarded as the greatest composer of binary harpsichord sonatas of all time, and that is as it should be: he wrote more than 600 of them and many are constantly recorded and played. However, early in his Italian career, Scarlatti developed a proven track record as a composer of sacred music, some of it under the watchful eye of his father, Alessandro Scarlatti, believed by many at the time as the top composer of the age. The fact most readily observed in regard to Domenico's sacred music is that his Stabat mater, composed in 1717 or 1718, was the work within that genre replaced in Rome by Giovanni Pergolesi's Stabat mater around 1735. The Scarlatti work was conceived in a different style to different strictures; while it has become the most recorded of Scarlatti's sacred works, it definitely suffers when paired with the Pergolesi owing to its immediacy and familiarity. On Coro's Iste Confessor, the Sixteen led by Harry Christophers widely opt for Scarlatti's own, other sacred music as filler to the "Stabat mater with results fairer to the composer and quite favorable to listeners.
This is a close to a "crossover" album as the fine group The Sixteen have ever come. Leaving most of their pure Renaissance and Baroque polyphony aside, here they are abetted by guitarist Kaori Muraji in a series of pieces arranged (by Bob Chilcott) for the CD, most of which, though seeming unlikely, work very well. Pachelbel's Canon is presented wed to a poem by Oscar Wilde and proves hypnotic. Gaspar Fernandes, a 16th-century Portugese composer, is represented by an energetic "A negrito de cucurumbé," featuring two soloists from The Sixteen and percussion. Tomas Luis de Victoria's Alma Redemptoris Mater is presented in two parts: one for soprano and guitar, the other for chorus. There are guitar solos as well.
The popular choral group the Sixteen has never sounded better than on this release, and fans of the ensemble can buy with confidence in acquiring a set of classic English Renaissance pieces with a few modern works for spice. For the unconverted it's a bit less convincing, but it has a strong idea. The album title comes from the conventional name of a prayer of none other than St. Patrick, set in modern English by Arvo Pärt in 2007.
The Indian Queen was one of Henry Purcell's final works and may in fact have been left unfinished at his death. Defining the state of the text is complicated by the fact that the work is a so-called semi-opera, a defunct form that mixed spoken dialogue, singing, and dance; the function of the surviving music isn't always totally clear. For those reasons, the work hasn't often been recorded. Many of the individual numbers are splendid examples of Purcell's style, with his sparkling ensemble dances and exuberantly rhythmic major-key tunes that seem to shake off dour minor introductory sections.