Last night, as part of the Spitalfields Music Winter Festival the Gabrieli Consort, along with the Copenhagen Royal Chapel Choir, performed a programme of carols. But not your usual selection of carols (although some of words might be familiar) – instead Paul McCreesh chose a set of old and new carols based mostly on mediaeval texts. Paul described his choice of carols as being 'beautiful, approachable but serious' and they were by turns sweet lullabies and rousing celebrations.
Victorian improvements included bricking up the lower windows and removing the galleries, which unfortunately destroyed its structural integrity. Two world wars later St Leonard’s was no longer safe and had to be closed. It has been recently rebuilt but is still a work in progress. The restored organ, clock and ceilings are a counterpoint to the peeling paintwork, misfit furniture, and shabby air. While the fabulous acoustics mean that it is in demand as a music and theatre venue, the church and congregation continue their primary role in the community (tonight is their carol service).
Evenings such as last night in partnership with the Spitalfields Music Festival honour St Leonard’s religious and artistic roots - the whole concert was to be in sympathy with the old and new of the venue and the renewal of Christmas and the turning of the year. There was a brief pre-concert talk about the Spitalfields Music Festival by trustee Helen Fraser who thanked the patrons in the audience (amongst whom there were some celebrity faces) and described some of the ongoing projects supported by the Festival – and then the concert began.
We were treated to added extras right from the start. A setting of Adam lay ybounden by Matthew Martin (b. 1976) written only 6 years ago began the concert with a Whitacresque soundscape. This was followed by an anonymous 13th century setting based on Veni, veni Emanuel. Although this is a well known tune, the composer arranged it beautifully for solo, unison and split voices – here hauntingly performed by the ladies. Herbert Howells (1892-1923) setting of Long, Long ago ended the first set.
An anonymous 15th century setting of the lullaby Lullay, lullay: Als I lay on Yoolis night, sung by one of the male altos, had some nicely placed ornamentation especially bringing out ‘Gabriels greeting’. Francis Pott’s (b. 1957) Balulalow may have been written in 2009 but it used text credited to James, John, and Robert Wedderburn (three brothers from Dundee who wrote collections of sacred songs based on popular ballads in the mid 16th century). This arch form carol showcased a floating soprano line, drifting above the choir.
The ladies sang in unison for the 14th /15th century Song of the Nun’s of Chester (Qui creavit celum). It made a lovely change from what in another concert would have been men’s plainchant and was followed by Jonathan Dove’s (b. 1959) empassioned setting of Dorothy L Sayers’ The three Kings – a lullaby shattering into chattering and shouting before cadencing back into a lullaby.
The final pair of this section was the anonymous 15th century This endere nyghth I saw a syghth performed by a trio of men in conversation with solo tenor, and Kenneth Leighton’s (1929-1988) setting of the 17th century A Hymn of the Nativity. I could have come to this concert to hear this piece alone. Leighton’s mastery of the possibilities of choral music performed by this group was spectacular. A conversation between solo and choir becomes a race-like round with the gap between the parts closing to become an echo.
Space was made for the boys of the Copenhagen Royal Chapel Choir to join in for A Boy was Born by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). Matching the rest of the evening, this was masterfully performed. Of special note were In the Bleak Mid-Winter and Noel!. The forte at the end of the finale was so loud that its reverberations beat off the windows and walls with no apparent effort. It is a special relationship between venue and choir that can leave your ears ringing.
Concerts by the Gabrieli consort always leave me wanting more. In this case we were not disappointed and were treated to a New Year encore. St Leonard’s was very cold and after two hours the singers must have been starting to feel it. Next time I’ll wrap up warmer and perhaps be there early enough to have some of the preconcert wine or spiced apple. But I’ll definitely be there.
review by Hilary Glover