"Spitalfields Festival is the best organised and most entertaining festival in the world," declared Andrew Carwood, director of The Cardinall's Musick. He might have added "friendliest". There is palpable sense of community, a gathering of friends. As I approached Christ Church, Spitalfields, the bells pealed merrily, punters were sitting on the steps, and a general feeling of bonhomie radiated.
This was the first concert of the festival given in the church since its restoration. How apt to present English choral music at its finest - from the Tudor age - and contemporary British work. But also telling that a friend should be remembered in this concert by a friend - composer Judith Weir and sometime artistic director of the festival - paid for by friends. The late Peter Lerwill was more than a friend to the festival. Handing over £5,000, he twinkled: "If I do this, someone else will, too." And he was right.
Once again, Weir has written an occasional piece of touching aptness. She often sets her own texts, but this time she has chosen three poems of George Herbert. Set for unaccompanied four-part choir, "Vertue", three short choruses, moves from plain and transparent two-part writing allowing Herbert's words to be heard, to an expansive eight parts. In the final "Prayer" she allows two solo voices to echo and contemplate previous phrases to magical results. The work ends on consonance for the setting of "Understood", a warmly meant piece given its premiere by The Cardinall's Musick.
The lion's share of The Cardinall's Musick concert was given over to a cappella settings of the Tudor age. Christopher Tye's "Omnes gentes, plaudite manibus" made a perfect opener.
In Byrd's Propers for Easter Day, Carwood skilfully combined the polyphonic propers with the appropriate chants for the Mass Ordinary. The plainchant was intoned from the back of the church in the balcony by four female voices - inauthentic, perhaps, but captivating. Three Tallis part-songs included the sober "O ye tender babes of England", an exhortation to please God, king, parents and Commonwealth, sung without a trace of mirth.
Pride of place went to Tallis's extraordinary 40-part motet Spem in alium. The expanded, though one-to-a-part, Cardinall's Musick were magnificent, producing and relishing the awe-inspiring sound.
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