The Brandenburg Choral Festival is an enormous endeavour, with hundreds of concerts all over London, featuring all kinds of choral music and a diverse range of performers. Tonight we were in the beautiful church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, the heart of the festival, for a late-night concert of stunning Tallis, Byrd and Allegri by candlelight.

The Choir of King's College London
The Choir of King's College London

King’s College London has one of the most acclaimed university choirs in England, performing a wide range of repertoire under the experienced hand of David Trendell. Tonight we were to be treated to an evening of early polyphony, includes favourites such as Allegri’s Miserere and Tallis’ 40-part motet Spem in Alium. However, we began the programme with one of Allegri’s lesser-known works: the Missa Christus resurgens. It is rather unfortunate that the Miserere setting is his lasting legacy, as so many of his other works are equally as beautiful, as tonight’s singers proved. The clean, rich, well-balanced sound of the choir, which is extraordinarily mature given the singers’ tender university age, was the perfect start to the Kyrie, with the long legato lines being used to great effect and the inner voices never being obscured. The dramatic antiphony of the Gloria and the musical tension created in the overlapping scalic passages filled the building with a delicious wash of sound.

The mass was programmed alongside the motet from which it takes its name; Christus resurgens. It was lovely to hear the two side by side, providing context for the mass setting. For this and the Agnus Dei, the choir split into two, singing from opposite sides of the performing space. This, I thought, worked well, highlighting the imitative elements of both settings and creating a fantastic surround-sound effect. However, some of the fantastic diction we heard in the first movements was lost slightly when the choir was divided and it sounded a little unwieldy at times. The echo effects were fabulous, though, and the line and flow of the music was never lost.

Allegri’s Miserere setting must be one of the best known settings of this text, although is somewhat ironic that the version we know and love today bears little resemblance to Allegri’s original, having gone through a number of transcriptions and performance traditions over the centuries. The version familiar today, with the famous high C, was only published in around 1951 by Ivor Atkins. The arrangement of the choir for this work again made great use of the space, with the solo quartet being placed up in the balcony of the church, creating an eerie, otherworldly effect in contrast to the sumptuous main choir. The solo is traditionally taken by a treble, so tonight’s performance took a different slant, with a female soprano taking the starring role. This created a rather voluptuous effect, which was very different to other performances I have heard. The tenor tasked with cantoring was suitably monastic and all in all I thought it was good performance of a piece that is almost too well known.

An additional Miserere setting was added to tonight’s programme – that of William Byrd. A very effective setting, with some extremely cool harmonic moments, was a lovely contrast to that of the Allegri and led us nicely into the motet Tristitia et anxietas. The opening of this was magically quiet and still, with simple homophonic chords and a brooding semitonal motif depicting extremes of misery. The semitone opens out into a whole tone for the hopeful second part, with nicely managed syncopation in the consolare section. I thought each section’s final chords could have been nourished more on occasion, but overall this was a highlight of the evening.

We finished with Tallis’ motet in 40 parts; Spem in Alium. For this, the Choir of King’s College were joined by selected alumni to make up sufficient numbers for this mammoth piece. This work is traditionally hard to perform, with the thick harmonic texture making it all too easy to get lost, and, once lost, almost impossible to correct. This, however, was obviously no problem for the accomplished singers, who never seemed to falter. In almost every performance I have seen, or indeed sung in, the role of the conductor is simply to beat extremely clearly, but Trendell did nothing of the sort. With sweeping gestures and expansive beats, he shaped the rich sound into something almost resembling real music, instead of the monochrome wall of sound. No longer simply a choral Everest to be defeated, this rendition had shape and musicality and was a wonderful way to end what was an impressive evening of music making by some of the up and coming stars of the choral world.