by Boyd Tonkin (The Arts Desk - 22nd December 2020)

Suitably enough, this year’s musical Christmas arrived at the Wigmore not in a dazzle of joyful light and bedecked with winter greenery, but with a lonely band of singers facing the gloom of an unlit, empty hall as fear and confusion multiplied outside. In both of yesterday’s concerts, the closing events of the venue’s defiant and courageous autumn season, a cappella choral music from the Renaissance ushered in a festival more austere than ecstatic. It proved deeply beautiful in its sombre way, but quite free of tinsel jollity. Black-clad singers on a bare stage, surrounded by cavernous darkness, somehow caught the moment’s mood. And both programmes showcased settings of O magnum mysterium, the Christmas Matins chant that reflects on the wonder of the baby who brings hope while nestling among stable animals, not coming in a blaze of worldly pomp and glory.

The 13 members of Stile Antico sang at lunchtime, and the eight-strong The Cardinall’s Musick – with director Andrew Carwood conducting – in the evening … Indeed, both of the day’s gigs deployed limited numbers with fine-focused precision. Both choirs, though, never lacked in sonic impact, and ensured that we didn’t miss a feeling of wall-of-sound polyphonic grandeur. They made the radiantly clear interaction of vocal parts a constant source of drama in itself. We heard more of the complex layering of line and texture that gives this repertoire such cumulative power.

[Andrew Carwood] described Palestrina’s own 1569 motet version of O magnum mysterium, which we heard first, as a sort of Lego kit that the composer later recombined into the Mass, using the same text, which followed. Five (at the end, six) of the Cardinall’s band sang the “ordinary” parts of the Mass while, in between, a couple of low voices contributed the “propers”: the plainsong verses specifically for Christmas morning. The result threw a more solemn, more liturgical mood over the performance, with Palestrina’s gorgeously interwoven lines still sounding more chaste than lush. At least, that is, until the Agnus Dei, when soprano melodies soar over deep harmonic seas beneath in one of those passages when sober Counter-Reformation black seems to burst out into quasi-operatic rainbow shades.

This was singing of the highest order that demanded, and rewarded, rapt attention. Carwood described the music of Palestrina, who suffered from the plague and lost his wife to it, as “about bringing heaven to earth”. Here it was hard to disagree. After a pair of small choral gems by Schütz, our final visit to polyphonic heaven came via a setting of the Magnificat (1622) by the Hamburg organist-composer Hieronymus Praetorius – unrelated, it seems, to the better-known Michael. Interspersed with the Magnificat’s texts (as would have been the custom at the time), the choir added harmonised versions of two traditional carols: Josef lieber, Josef mein (set by Leonhard Schröter), and the ubiquitous In dulci jubilo – two verses set by a certain Walter, and two arranged by a rather more familiar figure: JS Bach.

Expressive, and responsive, singing ensured that carols and liturgical music blended seamlessly. If, for the most part, yesterday’s Wigmore Christmas made for a muted and contemplative festival, here at last a taste of almost-Venetian sonic luxury and lavishness prevailed. The modest forces of The Cardinall’s Musick conjured not so much a mighty sound as an endlessly nuanced and variegated one. We even had delicious touches of Christmassy descant to add a sprig of holly to the cake. Once more, the Wigmore gave us something to sing about in the midst of wretched times.