Choral Music Performed in Its Spiritual Home; the Sixteen, One of Britain's Leading Professional Choirs, Makes a Rare Birmingham Appearance Later This Month. Conductor Harry Christophers Talks to Terry Grimley

Article excerpt

The Sixteen, one of the country's most renowned choirs, is on tour, performing English Pre-Reformation music

The Reformation happened so quickly, and yet what we have lost are things that had taken years and years to develop.

Harry Christophers

The Sixteen's Choral Pilgrimage tour is all about reuniting England's Pre-Reformation choral music with the buildings it was written for.

So what's Birmingham's 19th century Oratory doing on the itinerary?

Harry Christophers, founder and conductor of the renowned choir, has three explanations - one cultural, one musical and one personal.

'What's very noticeable about the tour is that it's all pre-Reformation music and the Catholics don't get a look-in. I wanted to do something about that, and thought we would concentrate on the two Oratories. But the one in London wasn't possible, so we've kept Birmingham.

'Also, H P Collins, who ran music at the Oratory at the beginning of the century - he was there in the 1910s and 1920s - did a lot of pioneering work in editing the music of this period. We've included one of those pieces, Christopher Tye's Omnes gentes plaudite, in the Birmingham concert.'

And the personal reason?

'I was married there. My wife's father, Frank Hayward, used to run music there and actually sang in the choir as a boy under Collins. Funnily enough, a lot of the older members of my choir came and sang for me when we got married in 1979.'

For these various reasons, Birmingham finds itself part of a network of 12 venues including most of England's great medieval cathedrals - among them York, Durham, Gloucester, Salisbury, Lincoln and Canterbury - and one other imposter in the shape of Liverpool's neo-Gothic Anglican cathedral.

Formed shortly after Christophers left Oxford, The Sixteen is a professional choir which took its name from its starting point of 16 singers performing 16th century music.

'It was as simple as that,' he recalls. 'Then we became known for baroque music, and the group can be anything from ten to 40 depending on what we're doing. The main thing is that whatever we do, we do it with the minimum number of singers that's stylistically possible, though I'm not one of the people who does Bach with solo voices because I don't believe in it.'

The group built an international reputation during the CD boom of the 1980s and early 1990s, recording a catalogue of around 70 discs for Hyperion (their first disc devoted to the music of John Sheppard is one of my great favourites from this period), Collins and Virgin.

Since the mid-90s, the recording industry has contracted sharply and the Collins catalogue, including The Sixteen's award-winning series devoted to the Eton Choir Book, has been wiped out (not because the discs were not selling but because the company acquired a new owner with no interest in classical music).

'The Collins thing is a great shame - the discs are supposed to be still available, but they're not,' says Christophers.

'The lady that ran it had a great vision and stuck in there. We were going to do Handel's Jephtha for them, and these projects are terribly, terribly expensive.'

Although the small independent labels have shown the majors the way with their exploration of adventurous repertoire - The Sixteen's CD of the Te Deum by the virtually unknown Portuguese composer Teixera sold an impressive 20,000 copies - they have not proved immune to the general downturn.

The Sixteen has now formed a partnership with Scottish-based Linn Records, for whom it has recorded a disc of Buxtehude. It has also produced a compilation CD drawn from the choir's Hyperion and Collins back-catalogues to accompany the Choral Pilgrimage tour.

The tour was conceived as a project to mark the Millennium, and comes as a package complete with the CD, on sale at the concerts as well as in shops, and a glossy souvenir booklet which reprints Nikolaus Pevsner's descriptions of the various buildings as well as background notes to the music. …