Arts: Classical: All hail the uber-choir

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CHARLES JENNENS, clergyman, dilettante and librettist, was moved to preface the word-book of Messiah with a quote from the New Testament: "And without Controversy, great is the mystery of Godliness." Great, indeed, as reflected in the pages of Handel's Messiah, one of the most profound of all personal musical statements of faith and among the hardest to perform with any sense of genuine conviction. Familiarity over the years has bred, if not contempt, then a certain complacency in the way Messiah is done - recognised by Harry Christophers, and countered in his work with The Sixteen.

The annual account of Messiah in London's stubbornly secular Barbican concert hall was elevated this year by choral singing that came close to perfection, itself a mystery to anyone who has struggled with Handel's awkward choruses or to articulate significant voice parts within his fugal writing. Technical accomplishments here rested not only on meticulous preparation and sensitive conducting but on corporate musical intelligence, rare with singers, regardless of their status, amateur or professional.

The Sixteen's balance of 18 voices, all professional and trained, favours a bright soprano sound, but there was no overall want of warmth in the tone. Christophers could be accused of indulging in choral phrasing and dynamic shadings that were too subtle for the Barbican's acoustics, especially so early in the work's first part. He was also guilty of devoting every effort to the pursuit of ensemble accuracy, immaculate intonation and crystal-clear textures, offences that most choral conductors would dearly love to commit.

The shortcomings rested largely with the team of soloists, too often divorced from the heart-felt humanity of the work's biblical libretto. Matthew Brook, deputising at short notice for Michael George, stood out as a soloist prepared to engage the text with individuality. Good vocal manners were always on show from soprano Lynda Russell and tenor James Gilchrist, while Susan Bickley expressively outlined the low tessitura of "He was despised".

Christophers and choir were in action the next evening at St John's, Smith Square, contributing 20th-century carols and seasonal music to the Hazard Chase Christmas Festival. The hallmarks of good singing and intelligent music-making were carried over from Messiah, injected with a dose of end-of-year passion and occasional moments of vibrato.

Potential recruits for The Sixteen, sounding suspiciously polished and rehearsed, were drawn from the audience's pre-teen division to crown the programme with a selection of evergreen carols.

Older folk, myself included, were left wanting to sing a few notes with this remarkable breed of uber-chorister.

Andrew Stewart