The Sixteen’s three appearances in the line-up for this year’s Spitalfields Music Festival showcase the breadth of their repertoire. On June 15 and 16, they will premiere Alan Roth’s new musical setting of Beckett monologues, Old Earth. First, on June 9, was something altogether more familiar. Tonight’s ‘Immortal Legacy’ encompassed some gems of English 16th-century polyphony and sacred music, along with both profound and exciting pieces by giants of contemporary British music. All performed a cappella, this was generally business as usual – and by that I mean singing of the highest standard – for Harry Christophers and his Sixteen, although he stayed decidedly on the safe side in terms of repertoire.

The programme ended as it began, with the great Thomas Tallis, who died in Greenwich in 1585 leaving one of the greatest of all legacies to choral music. It’s telling of Tallis’ strong influence on British music that audience members might have better known the third of the Tunes for Archbishop Psalter, ‘Why fum’th the fight’, from Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis. As a group, the opening four settings and the further six which finished the concert were beautifully realised, each line precisely crafted and articulated.

A set of madrigals followed, including Orlando Gibbons’ The Silver Swan, an exemplar within its genre, and This Sweet and Merry Month of May by Tallis’ contemporary William Byrd. Thomas Morley’s short madrigal from 1594 April is in My Mistress’ Face got off to a muddled start, but otherwise these played to The Sixteen’s strengths. The polyphony was sustained, polished and lovingly phrased, and were considerably more effective than James MacMillan’s Sedebit Dominus Rex, which followed. This dark-toned Strathclyde Motet for communion has a Latin text taken from the Graduale Romanum, and is intended for the feast of Christ the King. The opening homophonies created a bagpipe-like sound which seemed strained after the delicately balanced Byrd; perhaps an additional piece of MacMillan here rather than later on would have enabled the audience to re-adjust to the very different atmosphere this piece inhabits.

Generally, in the more complex pieces the acoustic was not on the side of The Sixteen, blurring the edges of Tippett’s Five Negro Spirituals in particular. The energy and shaping in their phrasing made up for this to a degree, but these inventive gems from A Child of our Time weren’t the strongest moment of the evening. However, they did add welcome spice and liveliness to the programme.

Opening the second half was Tallis’ O Nata Lux, something of a maverick among motets. It is simple and does not follow liturgical conventions, but is arguably one of the best-loved in today’s choral repertoire. The Sixteen gave it their usual precise treatment – even the wallowing tempo seemed appropriately relaxed for a picturesque summer evening. O Nata Lux was grouped with more Tallis – O sacrum convivium and Loquebantur variis linguis – two short and relatively intricate pieces of counterpoint drawing on Whitsun liturgy. These sat comfortably with the singers and were superbly engaging.

After more MacMillan and Byrd came Britten’s Choral Dances (or Courtly Dances) from the opera Gloriana: an imaginative inclusion to the programme. An appropriate partner to Tallis et al due to Gloriana’s basis in 16th-century Elizabethan England, they showed off the technical brilliance of which the choir is possessed. ‘The Masque Begins’ and six subsequent dances from the third scene of Act II, in which the Queen has a ball, were top class. Swooping heights and a joyful rhythmic quality brought the dances to life before those final six Tallis Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter brought us back to the 16th century, in which tonight had its roots.

Typically, much attention was given to presentation. The formations were well thought-out according to the range of voice settings used, and the choir wore their customary tail coats and colourful dresses. They don’t need to look good to make an impression, of course; The Sixteen’s international reputation for excellence is well founded and, although this concert had its shaky moments, for the most part it was another masterclass in how to really make choral music sing.

An Immortal Legacy, at Christ Church, SpitalfieldsKaty S Austin reviews The Sixteen's concert "An Immortal Legacy" at Spitalfields Music Summer Festival.4