Amidst all the hustle and bustle, the humming and buzzing of post-work Friday-night drinkers lining the sun-kissed streets of Spitalfields, who’d have thought that in the church at the very heart of that lively London area would be a man, standing alone, singing music written 800 years ago? Music from another human-inhabited world, so alien to our modern-day, Commercial Street lives, and yet still being performed: words praising the life of St Francis of Assisi sung to a melody composed only a few years after his death.

Medieval music is as rich, fascinating and bizarre to us now as the medieval culture onto which it gives us a window. In its very otherworldliness, its distance from cars, hip restaurants and trendy bars, not to mention major chords and balanced 4-bar phrases, we encounter a soundworld so old as to be startlingly new: something from which we are so detached and to which we feel an eerie, aquarium-like attraction. Such is the mystery of the distant past – at least for me.

But it wasn’t really that different. People still drank beer, enjoyed wining and dining, even the odd sexual innuendo. At least, this was what the Orlando Consort demonstrated in this fantastic, short, intimate concert which opened the Spitalfields Music Summer Festival 2013. Their highly researched programme served up songs related – sometimes obviously, sometimes endearingly scantily – to food and drink, drawing on sources from 13th-century France to 16th-century Spain, from contexts sacred and secular. The performance was designed in two parts: the first, a 45-minute concert in Christ Church; the second, a three-course medieval feast in the nearby English Restaurant accompanied by more vocal music. My ticket did not cover the banquet, but the first musical course was delectable enough for me.

Paring things down to their bare essentials, the Orlando Consort consists of just four male singers – an alto, two tenors, and a bass – but the songs they sang ranged from one to four parts. The variety of music was nothing short of tapestry-like: from sacred chant to party songs, from pre-dinner graces to picnic pastorales. After the opening anonymous In paupertatis predio, in which Angus Smith’s soft tenor floated ethereally around the church’s interior, a four-part motet from the 13th-century Montpellier codex sounded out joyously. Matthew Venner’s alto was a little difficult to pick out, with the texture being dominated by the enthusiastic voices of Benedict Hymas (tenor) and Donald Grieg (bass). However, Venner’s extraordinarily beautiful voice was given ample opportunity to shine in songs by Machaut and Dufay a little later. Indeed, these two songs represented the pinnacle of refined art song in the programme, the enchantingly refined beauty of Machaut’s love song Nes que on pourroit matched by the tenderness, sorrow and regret of Dufay’s bittersweet farewell (to local wine, amongst other things) Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys.

The move from France to England brought a return to the sacred in the programme. Apparuerunt apostolis v. Spiritus Domini is an anonymous piece found on a fragment from Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire, in which the voices alternate between unison plainchant passages and polyphonic writing. The music–food link was pretty tenuous here; apparently the monks of Fountains Abbey brewed their own particularly potent beer, which alone merited its inclusion in the programme, according to Grieg’s humorous and informative introduction, a feature of the concert throughout. However, it was obvious that the piece was chosen primarily for its musical attributes, fitting as it did so perfectly into the musical programme. The plainchant brought a new dimension to the concert: that sense of temporal stasis that only plainchant can achieve, which was provided an interesting counterpoint by the ambulance sirens that frequently passed by just outside the church. The food link was more ostensible in the Christmas carol Nowell, Nowell: The boarës head, in which the lively rhythms betrayed the carol genre’s dance origins, and communicated the joy and excitement associated with the Christmas feast.

Finally, we turned to Burgundy, where wine was predominantly the focus of the texts, including Dufay’s lament, a prayer to Bacchus by Louis Compère, and then, to round off this part of the evening’s entertainment, an anonymous song about the best party ever thrown in the history of the world. Although wine wasn’t specifically mentioned here, I have the feeling that this 15th-century extravaganza could have given Friday-night East London a run for its money in terms of amount of booze consumed!

This concert provided the perfect opening to Spitalfields Music festival. Interestingly conceived, insightfully presented, and most of all beautifully performed, the Orlando Consort certainly left me hungry for more.

****1