Harry Christophers / The Sixteen

Bright Orb of Harmony - Henry Purcell, James MacMillan

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The Sixteen have had phenomenal success with their precise yet agreeable choral singing, especially in their native Britain; this release carries a strip billing the group as "the voices of Classic FM," the crossover network that has, depending on whom you ask, either saved classical music in Britain or destroyed it. Of course the truth is somewhere in between. The program here is innovative and sticks in your head -- for this the Sixteen and director Harry Christophers deserve credit. The combination of short choral pieces by Henry Purcell and by contemporary composer James MacMillan is meant to assert some kind of gauzy continuity in British music. It works, but only with a bit of sleight of hand: Christophers makes Purcell sound quite a bit like MacMillan, whose extended harmonies are characteristic of contemporary choral repertoire. His music fits the Sixteen well, as recognized by commissioning the motet O bone Jesu; here the group explores his music in greater depth, including the powerful A Child's Prayer (track 8). This work originally commemmorated the Dunblane school massacre of 1996, and, tragically, it has lost none of its relevance. But it's the Purcell performances here that are really unusual. The Sixteen apply their sweet sound to every dissonance in the music, and this approach reveals just how many of them there are. That in turn links the music back to MacMillan. It all hangs together, and it's remarkably effective even if, for some, it may be just a bit artificial, especially with booklet notes that attempt to convince you that you're being religious when you listen to music whether you realize it or not.

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