Escolania de Montserrat
Based up in the Catalonian hills above Barcelona, this boys-only choir (trebles and altos, no lower voices) can trace its roots back to the 1300s, making it one of the oldest choirs in Europe. Around 50 in number, the choir’s daily routine involves singing services at the Abbey of Montserrat, a popular destination for pilgrims, but it also tours widely and has recorded many discs.
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Little surprise that a nation famous for song – its independence from the USSR was preceded by a ‘Singing Revolution’ of massed voices in Tallinn in 1988 – should boast one of the world’s finest choirs. Founded in 1981 by Tonu Kaljuste, who conducted it for 20 years before handing over the baton to Paul Hillier, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is wide-ranging in its repertoire, but is especially well known for its performances and recordings of Estonian composers such as Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis.
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
Familiar to millions of listeners thanks to the BBC Radio broadcast of its Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols every Christmas Eve, a tradition dating back to 1928. Though the choir itself has been in existence since the college’s foundation in 1441, it is since the 1960s – under choirmasters David Willcocks, Philip Ledger and Stephen Cleobury – that its reputation, just like its distinctive treble sound, has really soared.
Mississippi Mass Choir
One hopes that Jerry Mannery, director of the Mississippi Mass Choir, has a large mantelpiece, as his pre-eminent gospel ensemble has won countless awards since it was set up by Frank Williams in the late-1980s. When not singing or recording at its home patch in Jackson, Mississippi, the choir regularly showcases its talents abroad, including singing for Pope John Paul II when on tour in Italy.
St Paul’s Cathedral Choir
St Paul’s Choir enjoyed arguably its highest profile moment when the Cathedral hosted the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. It was in the 1870s that, as choirmaster, composer John Stainer turned a fairly ramshackle outfit into a highly polished ensemble. Cricketer Alastair Cook and actor Simon Russell Beale are among the former trebles to have plied their trade beneath the building’s famous dome.
Pedants beware – The Sixteen don’t always perform with 16 singers. However, this was the number of friends who first got together when the group was assembled by conductor Harry Christophers in 1977. Today, The Sixteen has nearly 100 discs under its belt, and its regular ‘Choral Pilgrimage’ concert tours around the UK and beyond are sell-out affairs. Though renowned for their mastery of Renaissance repertoire, their reach stretches well beyond that.
The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square
Choirs come in all shapes and sizes, and at around 360-strong The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square is one of the largest. It is also one of the most famous. Formerly known as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, it was founded in Salt Lake City in 1847 and has become a cornerstone of US choral tradition, performing at several US presidential inaugurations including those of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the present incumbent.
While future prime minister Tony Blair was honing his talents in a rock band called the Ugly Rumours in the early 1970s, Peter Phillips, his fellow undergraduate at St John’s College, Oxford, had his sights set on music of a much earlier era. In 1973, Phillips founded the Tallis Scholars which, as the name suggests, focused on studying and performing Renaissance repertoire. Nearly 50 years and countless best-selling discs later, Phillips and his singers are still setting the benchmark.
Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge
Oxbridge college choirs featuring boy trebles on the top line – notably King’s and St John’s in Cambridge and New College, Magdalen and Christ Church in Oxford – have long enjoyed a lofty reputation. In recent years, however, those comprised entirely of students, with female sopranos (and altos), have started to share the limelight. Arguably the pick of these is Trinity, Cambridge, not least since Stephen Layton took the reins as director of music in 2006, bringing an immaculate choral blend to repertoire ranging from Handel to Howells.
Comparative newcomers compared to the Tallis Scholars and The Sixteen in the early music scene, Vox Luminis was founded by Lionel Meunier in the Belgian town of Namur in 2004. Their immaculately observed performances of 16th-, 17th- and early-18th-century soon got them noticed, however, and plaudits aplenty, international engagements and major awards have since followed.