The Cardinall's Musick/Carwood, St John's, Smith Square, London

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The Independent Culture

It takes imaginative planning to conjure a satisfying unity from a programme comprising no less than 22 short items. But that scholarly singer-director Andrew Carwood has never lacked such skill. For this Christmas concert in St John's Smith Square, with his eight expert singers comprising The Cardinall's Musick, he had selected the theme of the Annunciation, as epitomised in that radiantly downward-lilting English medieval carol "Angelus ad Virginem", which duly turned up in the second half.

The first half, however, was built around successive movements of the Missa Alma redemptoris mater by the Spanish High Renaissance master Tomas Luis da Victoria. This was composed on ideas drawn from his sumptuous earlier "Alma redemptoris" motet, based in turn upon the eponymous Annunciation plainchant, which surfaces in the Missa itself most clearly in the "Sanctus".

Despite its intricate provenance, this proved a bright, concise mass setting with much bouncing of chordal antiphonies back and forth between its two four-voice choirs - quite belying this composer's reputation for mystic introspection. Carwood chose to sandwich its successive movements between various plainchants drawn from the Proper for the fourth Sunday in Advent, and with three short English medieval motets, of which John Dunstable's serene, arch-like setting of "Speciosa facta est" proved most memorable.

Rather than seek a homogenised Cardinall's Musick sound, Carwood evidently relishes the strongly individual timbres of his singers. The second half of the programme comprised a contrasted sequence of items. This ranged from a feisty rendering by the women of the monophonic 15th-century "Salutation Carol" to the flamboyant full-voice "Angeli Archangeli" by the Flemish Early Renaissance master Heinrich Isaac.

In between came more Marian and Angelic items from Victoria, William Byrd, the madrigalian "Factus est silentium" by Richard Dering, and Palestrina in unusually dark mood in "Venit Michael Archangelus". But Carwood was also able to fit three modern items seamlessly into the sequence. Michael Tippett's early "Plebs angelica", composed for Canterbury Cathedral Choir in 1942 to a visionary text by Helen Waddell, is something of a study in Renaissance counterpoint, anyway, if to ambiguous harmonic effect.

A recent, somewhat agitated Annunciation setting "Ecce concipies", and a more sombre, polymodal motet "O magnum mysterium", receiving its first performance, proved genuine intensifications of the Holst-Britten tradition of choral writing. Both were the work of 28-year-old Matthew Martin about whom neither the programme sheet nor Carwood from the stage offered further information. His pieces were, however, as well received by a capacity audience as anything in this vocal celebration.