Angels are, surely, one of the most magical aspects of Christmas.  A tinsel halo and a white sheet can transform even the naughtiest child into a model of virtue.  As a small brown-haired girl, I longed (fruitlessly) to be an angel in the school Nativity play, an honour only ever seemingly given to the blondest. The absolute perfection of angels seems to make them at once ideal and unearthly; in one view, the acme of Goodness personified, but in another, so weirdly perfect as to be inhumane and unfeeling; we might think of the more compromised, modern angels of Philip Pullman.  It is not surprising that they have also inspired composers throughout the ages.

Cardinall's Musick © Dmitri Gutjahr
Cardinall's Musick
© Dmitri Gutjahr

For this concert, The Cardinall’s Musick have collected pieces from Palestrina to Poulenc which mention, enact or incorporate angels and archangels; a sure-fire Christmas crowd pleaser. Interspersed among the angels’ voices are, in the first half, Victoria’s Missa O magnum mysterium, full of darkly mystical harmonies.

The theory of the programme is excellent; listening to five different settings of the same text (Hodie Christus natus est) is genuinely interesting, as you see how each composer interprets phrasing and emphasis. Some pleasingly contrasting moments, such as a short piece of plainchant just before the interval, give the selection overall breadth. The eight singers produce a full, rich sound which is generously adumbrated by the wonderful acoustic of St John’s Smith Square, while Andrew Carwood’s friendly introductions help to engage the audience’s attention. As the Tippett Plebs angelica approached, for example, he advised us all “not to panic” – and indeed, having just listened to some early works (cf. Palestrina), it was much easier to hear Tippett’s debt to early music, as well as how he developed those harmonic structures into something powerfully modern, very different, and very much his own. The Poulenc pieces, intimately connected with his tumultuous journey of faith, were especially beautiful; and nobody does sacred mystery like Victoria.

As I listened to all those beautiful unaccompanied pieces, I found myself wondering why we bother to accompany the human voice at all; the range of colours and textures you can achieve with the full range of registers (bass to soprano), even in a small choir like this, is astonishing.  Every harmony sounds full and complete.

The accuracy of the singing didn’t quite follow, sadly; sometimes the timing slipped, elsewhere the parts seemed a little disunited. We were told that, due to unfortunate illness, not all the usual choir members were able to sing, and for me the choir (as we heard it) didn’t really seem to gel until their final, soaring encore (The Angel Gabriel from heaven came, possibly my favourite carol), with some singers noticeably stronger than others in certain pieces. Musically, it wasn’t quite the treat I hoped or expected. It lacked verve, passion, playfulness or panache. But it did give me much to think about – and finished on a resounding high.