Spitalfields Winter Festival, Christ Church Spitalfields, London

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The Independent Culture

This Spitalfields Winter Festival concert paid homage to an established Christmas institution: the Christmas Eve carol service given at King's College, Cambridge. The seasonal staple is graced each year by a new carol commissioned, almost always, from a British composer.

Placed end to end, these would scarcely cover the full stylistic gamut (it's unrealistic, I suppose, to expect a carol from, say, Brian Ferneyhough). But they still offer a fascinating example of how the business of satisfying such a high-profile occasion, and anticipating success elsewhere afterwards, can be squared with the integrity of the individual composer's style.

The Holst Singers, under Stephen Layton and with James Vivian at the organ, gave 10 of the King's commissions, interspersed with Arvo Pärt's Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen. Some composers get the mix right and, apparently without effort, produce something entirely their own: Jonathan Harvey's "The Angels" extends the Anglican idiom gently into a higher level of chromatic density without anachronism.

Two composers confront the challenge by producing something more obviously dramatic and (vocally or structurally) boundary-breaking. Thomas Ades's "Fayrfax Carol" begins simply and hymn-like, but soon deploys solo voices and boys' (or, as here, female) voices generally, to emotionally striking effect. James MacMillan's "Seinte Mari Moder Milde" conjures a compelling miniature drama out of its 13th-century Middle English and Latin text.

Two of these carols, at least, have already entered the repertoire of choirs up and down the land. Jonathan Dove's "The Three Kings", only five years old, is enormously effective - though the carol's conclusion is trite, the refrain is the tune still going round in my head. Judith Weir's "Illuminare, Jerusalem", now a venerable 20, is typical of this composer at her best, instantly creating and then masterfully sustaining its own world of mystery.

While the relative continuity of the Pärt provided a necessary foil to the variety of the carol sequence itself, it was a shame that more of the best carols weren't included. It would, for instance, have been appropriate to offer the one by Diana Burrell, who this time next year will be Spitalfields' artistic director. The Holst Singers proved first-rate exponents of this short but enchanting choral feast.

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