Concerts mixing recitations and music tend to prove a mixed blessing, entirely pleasing neither to music- lovers nor to the more literary minded. When a programme also involves a modicum of production – lighting effects, back-projections etc – it can too easily suggest a lack of faith in the music alone to speak.
The strong and coherent sequence of Renaissance and modern choral music reflecting aspects of war that The Sixteen, under Harry Christophers, presented in their latest concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall certainly needed no such enhancement. Indeed, in Poulenc's great cantata Figure humaine, the flickerings of the back projections à travers the tempi of the music proved a maddening distraction. However, the brief readings of poems by Lorca, Auden, Brecht and Eluard were so skilfully chosen, and poignantly spoken by Virginia McKenna and Alan Howard, that for once the literary element really contributed.
The music began with one of those cheerfully onomatopoeic madrigals of Clément Janequin, La guerre, evoking the sounds of battle, then proceeded to the Missa de la batalla escoutez, based on phrases from the Janequin piece by the Spanish Renaissance master Francisco Guerrero. However, Christophers also chose to intersperse the movements of Guerrero's Mass with Poulenc's 4 Motets pour un temps de pénitence, the plaintive chordal litanies of the latter beautifully offsetting the florid counterpoint of the Guerrero, culminating in a radiant eight-part Agnus Dei that was perhaps the highpoint of the evening.
More Guerrero opened the second half, including a magnificent polychoral setting of Duo Seraphim, and thence to Figure humaine (1944), Poulenc's hymn to liberty, setting clandestine Résistance texts by his friend Paul Eluard. It is, of course, a measure of The Sixteen's versatility that they can switch performance styles across the centuries so convincingly, but the consequence is a choral sound more "all purpose" as regards fullness of tone than that cultivated by some, more self-consciously Early Music outfits.
Just occasionally, in louder, denser passages of Poulenc's partwriting, the flaring of vibrato occluded the harmony. Yet the upbeat ending came over as joyously as ever.