It seemed valiant of the two sopranos to turn out in backless, sleeveless evening dresses when a thick fur coat and a hat would not only have been more suitable, but have greatly aided the vocal cords. Which is not to suggest that the excellent I Fagiolini seemed compromised in the slightest by the semi-arctic climate.
I Fagiolini are a six-strong a cappella vocal group boasting said sopranos, Anna Crooks and Carys Lane; a couple of tenors, Nicholas Hurndall Smith and Hugh Wilson; one baritone, Matthew Brook; and a counter-tenor/director, Robert Hollingworth. Apart from the latter's skill in counter-tenoring, he has a nice line in witty introductions, which are good for breaking the ice, for the poor who can't afford programme books, for those too old or too lazy to read their programmes, and, of course, for the voices of his singers.
I Fagiolini are celebrating their 10th anniversary, so they must have seemed an appropriate choice for the opening of Spitalfields' first Christmas Festival. A mixed bag would best sum up the programme: Christmas music from Germany - Das Glaut zu Speyer, Ludwig Senfl's marvellous 15th-century vocal imitation of the bells from the Rhine town; and from Spain - the serious Latin motet style of Victoria in his grave Quem vidistis pastores (sung as smoothly as silk), Pedro Rimonte's De la piel de sus overjas (a villancico with a secular text about a shepherd who takes the extreme step of dressing up as a sheep) and a splendid ensalada by Mateo da Flecha (also 15th-century), El Fuego, in which 15th-century firemen are called on to "pour a thousand barrels of penitent water on your conscience to put out the blaze of your wicked desires", and in which I Fagiolini (here reduced to four) supplied not only the vocals - in thick Spanish - but also frantic hand movements.
William Byrd's exquisite Lullaby, beautifully, evenly sung, restored decorum before a spirited dive into the 20th century with four movements from Britten's Sacred and Profane on medieval English lyrics, one of the composer's final works.
The evening ended with the London premiere of Sun, new moon and women shouting by Edward Dudley Hughes, a grey work suitably based on a text concerning the cataclysmic moment after the winter solstice when the people of Tikigaq in Northern Alaska greet the first sunrise on the roofs of their igloos. Very appropriate.