Music : The slaughter of the innocents

The Sixteen St John's, Smith Square
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The Independent Culture
Most years it's St John's Smith Square that puts the musicality back into Christmas. A venue that feels out on a limb much of the time comes into its own with the candlelit and choral cornucopia of Advent. Shamelessly Messiah-led it may be - four performances in eight days - but then there are a lot of them about that do not have the promise of these. Anyway, look at the other options: tonight at 6pm, for instance, there are the inviting mysteries of Charles Tournemire's seasonal organ music, fo llowingMonday's virtuoso tour of early and modern byways from The Sixteen.

Harry Christophers' singers are now 16 years established, and they drew a packed, soberly cheerful house. In this ambience, the kind that used to be called solid and bourgeois, they took a while to raise their performance beyond a rather suave blandness.Fluent plainsong briefly interrupted by a bright burst of John Sheppard's more complex textures, a wistful way with the 16th-century polyphony of Richard Pygott: could The Sixteen be heading for a middle age of comfortable English melancholy?

On a century to George Kirbye's Vox in Rama, and the grip of real intensity began to take hold. Simpler lines, but they came across with altogether fuller tone and tauter phrasing. It had needed a step away from Christmas to do it: this was music for thecommemoration of Herod's slaughter of the innocents, three days later in the church calendar, and the experience seemed altogether more real. Chechens, Rwandans, Bosnians . . . maybe in this year it's the feast we should be marking instead. The impact lasted through to the interval by way of the more active lines in Richard Davy's Salve Regina, which at strategic moments of the text reverts to great assertive chords flung out into silence. Everything worked together here. Dry teno r tone metamorphosed into a buzzing, reedy instrumental timbre; the sensuous adult advantage of women sopranos over boys came into its own.

For the 20th-century half, The Sixteen found their customary dramatic style, even with an unlikely sequence that placed Britten either side of the turn-of-the-century Edward Naylor. This worked to Naylor's benefit, since the 17-year-old Britten of A Hymnto the Virgin was a more frank and innocent spirit than the Britten who delivered the ultra-camp Auden setting of A Shepherd's Carol, and the Hymn came first. Naylor's passionate psychodrama, Vox Dicentis, subsides from its blazing directness into a drawn-out luscious ending, and features a fierce Old Testament God who was treated to all the fire and relish that The Sixteen bring to Poulenc's wartime choral pieces.

From there, subtlety remained on the increase through Kenneth Leighton's sliding harmonies to the animated and skilful dovetailing of ancient and modern in Arnold Bax's Mater ora filium, with its long ecstatic final surge. For final encore, Ding Dong Merrily on High had all the old tricks like the booming accent on "swungen", done mercifully straight and light, to a perfection that would be the despair of school choir conductors throughout the land.