The Festival has a unique atmosphere partly because of this round of services. But also because the Festival format allows the performance of music which is more elaborate than would be possible every day. The choir members are drawn from Cathedral and College choirs and attain a very high standard, considering that they have not sung together before. Entry to all the services is free, you just contribute to the collection. You have to arrive an hour early if you want to get a decent seat; which means that the service is preceded by your eaves dropping on whichever choir is rehearsing in the church at that time.
Thursday Evening’s sequence was memorable for the performance, by the consort, of Tippett’s Negro Spirituals from A Child of Our Time; the soprano soloist gave a lovely performance despite being heavily pregnant. As a concert piece I find the spirituals very moving, but they are rendered even more so when performed in context. The evening started with a stunning motet, Verbum caro factum est by John Sheppard.
Friday morning’s service was choral matins: the consort sang the 3 canticles from Byrd’s Great Service. It was wonderful to hear these substantial settings in context of a service, but they are very long and this is only possible in such a festival setting. The choir of men and boys contributed Elgar’s lovely The Spirit of the Lord from The Apostles.
The Friday evening service was Solemn Eucharist with the setting being Josef Rheinberger’s Mass in E Flat for unaccompanied double choir. This was quite a find and given Rheinberger’s dates (1839 – 1901), was full blooded Romantic music. I am not sure it was quite suitable for a choir of men and boys, but they gave it a brave shot and I was pleased to have heard it.
Saturday morning’s service was another Solemn Eucharist, the setting this time being Palestrina’s Missa Brevis sung by the consort. This is a mass that we sing at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Cadogan Street, Chelsea and it was lovely to hear it sung so beautifully here.
Saturday evening was another Sequence; but this was a very special service. This week is the 50th Festival (the first took place in 1956) so the congregation contained a great many ex-members - the Festival Companion listed all of the participants over the years and a great many well known names seem to have performed there either as children or young adults. Both the men and boys and the consort joined together to perform Bach’s Jesu, mein Freude and the consort were joined by ex-members for a truly memorable performance of Tallis’s Spem in Alium, sung 1 voice to a part with the choirs distributed round the church in a circle, Jeremy Summerly directing from the middle of the nave. The opening alto solo was taken by Robin Blaze and the choir included Andrew Carwood, Robert Quinney and Julian Thomas (the present festival director). We were sitting quite close to choirs 5 and 6 (situated in front of the West Door), but the result was still stunning as the sound approached and receded. After that, we needed the quietness of Compline to calm down.
Finally, Sunday morning’s Solemn Eucharist was the last service of the Festival. Mozart’s Spaur Messe received a lively performance from the choir of men and boys, the consort sang two Russian Orthodox pieces (by Nikolai Kedrov the Elder and by Tchaikovsky). Finally, all choirs gathered together to sing Robert Parsons’s Ave Maria
So now life returns to normal and all we can do is wait for next year’s Festival.