Carols ancient and modern

Spitalfields Winter Festival | Christ Church, London
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The Independent Culture

It might prove a comforting paradox for anyone dismayed by "God rest ye merry gentlemen" that what, with so many cultural alternatives now thriving in our midst, reports of that most English of institutions, the carol concert, sound like "news from a far country".

It might prove a comforting paradox for anyone dismayed by "God rest ye merry gentlemen" that what, with so many cultural alternatives now thriving in our midst, reports of that most English of institutions, the carol concert, sound like "news from a far country".

But not at the Spitalfields Winter Festival where they've turned it to good account, unmarred by excessive jollity. True, there was community singing on Wednesday evening at Christ Church. Yet it was more demanding than the sort which gets ever slacker and slower. Everyone had to keep their wits about them in the last stanza of Stephen Jones's version of Bach's In Dulce Jubilo. In Judith Weir's "My Guardian Angel", the audience was confined to a threefold plainsong Alleluia repeated five times.

Against it, however, the City Chamber Choir, with Jones conducting, set dancing melodic patterns that echoed the composer's favourite medieval intonations, though the words chosen were from Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience.

The choice of Peter Warlock's "Bethlehem Down", magically sung like a hushed chorale, added to the desired effect, while Peter Skellern's "So said the Angel", and the "Gloucestershire Wassail" added a boisterous touch.

But perhaps the most interesting was in the response of different generations of living British composers to the poetry still latent in our native choral tradition. Interestingly, Blake was also the key in Tavener's "The Lamb". In "Love bade me Welcome", he attempted to match the complex mysticism of George Herbert. Sounding at times more like the modality of Vaughan Williams than of Byzantium, the composer's arrangement of parallel chords also implied a musical archetype in the forms of Anglican chant.

Receiving its second performance, "I am the Day" by Spitalfield's future artistic director Jonathan Dove used similar techniques to different ends. While Tavener's work avoids the drama of key-changes, which is part of its effect, Dove feels free to rove, and makes of his journey a tale to remember.

Though characteristically simple, his tonal manoeuvres in the closing pages were perfectly timed to resolve the tension between opposing tuneful strains - a serene but buoyant tenor melody and a rocking cradle song. The words sounded comfortable for singing, the freshness of their music suggesting the spirit of renewal harboured in the fragment of text from the legend of St Christopher, and the sense of expectancy of our present times.

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