The Spitalfields Winter Festival has rapidly established itself as one of the ‘must do’ events in the classical concert year; the venues alone are worth venturing out for, even on the chilliest of nights, and this concert, given to a packed audience in one of London’s most glorious churches, was the perfect start to the season.
Hawksmoor’s masterpiece, once described as “the best building in London,” was the ideal setting for a programme of Christmas music old and new, the vast spaces and austere background contrasting with the warm ambience and sparkling colours of the singing. The Sixteen under its founder, Harry Christophers, always manage to come up with new ways to present the familiar, and here we had some very well known music combined with lesser known pieces, all linked together around O magnum mysterium, a meditation on the wonder of the Nativity.
The central idea was to show how composers as varied as Palestrina and Charles Ives have been inspired by the story, and the first carol, John Gardner’s When Christ was born of Mary free set the atmosphere to perfection. Gardner’s setting was first published in 1963 yet it is firmly within the style of the old English carols, employing the voices in unison for the verse and polyphony for each stanza’s final In excelsis Gloria. Holst’s In the Bleak Midwinter is far better known of course, yet The Sixteen’s singing of it made it sound totally different from what we hear when we hack our way through it in church; every phrase was moulded with such skill that you heard the words as if anew yet they lost none of their evocative power. The third stanza was sung with clarion tone by the tenor Jeremy Budd.
A much less well known carol was Will Todd’s My Lord has come; Todd, born in 1970, might be familiar as the composer of The Call of Wisdom heard at the Diamond Jubilee Service. This very intense, dramatic piece not only showed off the choir – especially the sopranos – at its best but was a demonstration of how a 21st century composer can respond to the Christmas story in a way which respects tradition whilst sounding totally fresh.
Of the many settings of the central work, perhaps the most moving was that of Tomás Luis de Victoria, who may have been a pupil of Palestrina; Harry Christophers expertly brought out the contrasts between the serenity of the opening and the passion of the closing phrases. The programme concluded with Palestrina’s Magnificat quarti toni in a performance revealing The Sixteen’s characteristic closeness of ensemble and elegance of phrasing.
The festival continues until December 16th, and highlights include ‘The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments’ on the 10th, promising “bawdy dances, songs and instrumental music to recreate the energy and spirit of the Elizabethan era.” A more peaceful evening follows on the 11th, when Iestyn Davies and The English Concert will perform music by Buxtehude, Locatelli, Wassenaer and J. S. Bach, including some excerpts from the Christmas Oratorio.
More information on Spitalfields Winter Festival can be found here.