The Sixteen at Paris's Musée d'Orsay
The Sixteen kick off their 2014 UK Choral Pilgrimage with a superb concert in the French capital
In all the times I've been to Paris's Musée d'Orsay, I've never clocked their small auditorium down in the museum's bowels. Neither had The Sixteen, who I think had assumed they'd be performing their stunning concert of Tudor choral music by William Mundy, John Sheppard and Richard Davy in the main exhibition hall, in among the Monets, Poussins and Rodins.
It might have made sense to hold it in the hall's swimmy acoustics given that the concert was the choir's symbolic launch of their 14th annual Pilgrimage around 32 of the UK's cathedrals, churches, chapels and abbeys, starting in March. But it wasn't to be, and their dry run turned out to be exactly that – dry.
There's nothing like the absence of any kind of echo in a venue to sort the choral sheep from the goats. It's amazing what many choirs can get away with in a cavernous church where lines spill into one another, and cadences have their sharp ends sanded down.
Down in the Musée d’Orsay’s auditorium, however, conductor Harry Christophers and his 18 singers sang their Tudor repertoire with breathtaking clarity of line, impeccable tuning and thoughtful phrasing. In the minimal acoustic, every note of the dense English polyphony was audible, and all the better for it, it was too.
Throughout Mundy's extraordinary 20-minute Vox patris caelestis, for example, it was as if their conductor Harry Christophers had removed the movement of a clock and lain out each piece neatly before us.
The audible sighs of appreciation at the end of each work reminded us British members of the audience how fortunate we are, up and down the UK, to have choirs of this calibre as part of our everyday musical fabric. France has a wonderful musical heritage, of course, but chamber choirs do seem to be one of their blind spots.
Talking to one or two of the singers afterwards, it appears their experience on-stage was very different to the audience's, and all were relieved to have performed so well under the circumstances. I mentioned the look of unalloyed concentration on their faces throughout the performance. ‘You should have seen Harry's face,’ came the retort...
The Sixteen's Choral Pilgrimage kicks off on 21 March at St John's College Chapel, Cambridge and finishes on 25 October at Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirk