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The Spirit of Christmas, from Centuries Past

Harry Christophers
Marco Borggreve

The Sixteen's new album “A Renaissance Christmas” captures the haunting sound of human voices rising up like the arches of great buildings, whispering the loving message of Christmas – and it’s WCRB’s CD of the Week.

When conductor Harry Christophers celebrates his birthday on the day after Christmas, he may find himself stepping back to get a good view of the astonishing things he’s accomplished over his 65 years. It might feel surprising to him that he’s been at the helm of Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society for ten years now, and 2019 will mark 40 years since he created The Sixteen, the ensemble that’s been called the best choir in England.

The Sixteen is family for Christophers, and it’s been a touchstone from where he’s explored the choral art from every angle – from ancient polyphony where strand after strand of glowing lines work together to create a spiritual universe of sound, to music written in our own time, commissioned by The Sixteen, and given the same intense, intimate beauty with color and meaning.

Now they’ve released a new Christmas recording, and it is radiant. A Renaissance Christmas features sacred music that blossomed even when Europe was in a state of religious and political upheaval. Andrew Stewart writes in his wonderful liner notes that despite the ongoing wars between Catholics and Protestants, composers on both sides “graced the season with intimations of the polyphony of paradise.”

It’s a joy to experience this recording from beginning to end. You’ll be struck by Sweelinck’s Hodie Christus natus est (track 2) as The Sixteen unleashes its many bright layers with Harry Christophers maintaining an irresistible, dancing pulse. Videntes stellam Magi by Lassus (track 7) tells the story of the Magi opening their treasures for the newborn king. The voices of the singers hover in the air, creating crystalline phrases shrouded with a mysterious radiance. It’s hard to imagine it done more beautifully.

William Byrd’s O magnum mysterium/Beata Virgo (track 10) is a universe of its own. The choir is perfect here, releasing one sinewy line after another and capturing the sheer awe of the mystery of Christmas. 

Here’s a beautiful BBC documentary that tells the history of sacred music at Christmas, with lots of the art and wisdom of Harry Christophers woven in.

Listen to a track from the album:

For more information and to purchase this recording, visit ArkivMusic.