Seldom had the cathedral been so full, and not often for so poignant a reason. On Monday, John Tavener had eloquently stated his artistic credo on Radio 4's Start the Week, and on Tuesday he died.
Friday night's concert had been scheduled months ago, but instead of a cheerful celebration of his latest choral work – a setting of three Shakespeare sonnets – it turned into his memorial service with family, friends and fans – the opening line of the last poem sounding a note of awful appropriateness: "No longer mourn for me when I am dead."
The performers were Tavener's favourite singers, the South Iceland Chamber Choir, who began with some arrangements of Icelandic traditional songs. The composer was drawn to the singers' sweetly modal harmonies and clear kinship to medieval English carols. After a somewhat overblown premiere by a young composer, it was time for Tavener's own music, including "The Lamb" and "Song for Athene", his tribute to a friend killed cycling, and sung at Princess Diana's funeral.
Tavener had written his a cappella Three Shakespeare Sonnets in gratitude to his wife after she had nursed him through a dangerous illness in 2007. In it he had chosen to create an opposition between soprano soloists singing very high angular lines and the rest of the choir laying down a soft carpet of continuous sound, which suited the bitter ironies of the sonnet. The encore was Tavener's gentle setting of the Lord's Prayer, which left many of the audience in floods of tears.
'Three Shakespeare Sonnets' will feature in 'The Choir' on Radio 3 today