December 9, 2013 5:57 pm

Spitalfields Music Winter Festival, Tower of London – review

Young Irish composer David Coonan’s piece stood out in this Bach-inspired evening
Organist Christian Wilson©Howard Grey

Organist Christian Wilson

There can be no more thrilling approach to a concert than walking through the grounds of the Tower of London at night. The spotlit Tower Bridge looms proudly over the scene and in the empty blackness of the immediate landscape one imagines the ghosts of history on the way past the execution block to the Chapel Royal of St Peter and Vincula.

The Spitalfields Music Winter Festival is fortunate to have such a wide range of venues at its disposal. From its historic base at Christ Church, Spitalfields, to the Galvin la Chapelle restaurant and outdoor music-making in the old Spitalfields Market, it continues to explore sites old and new, grand and humble.


IN Music

At the Tudor Chapel Royal the festival presented an interesting programme of organ music and songs. When Bach died in 1750, he left his Orgelbüchlein unfinished, having written only 46 of the 164 choral preludes for organ that he had intended. The Orgelbüchlein Project, curated by William Whitehead, aims to complete the book with new compositions by living composers, and the most recent five were performed here.

It is not part of the brief that composers should emulate Bach’s style, but those that found some modern equivalent of Bach’s interplay of voices made the most impact. Best by far was “Jesus Christus unser Heiland” by young Irish composer David Coonan, thanks to the bubbling energy of its counterpoint. Francis Pott infused his choral prelude with English lyricism, while Roxanna Panufnik married a clean-cut style with a strong dramatic outline. None of the pieces lasted more than three minutes and they need to establish their individuality more adeptly than the dense and wispy contributions by Guy-Olivier Ferla or Vincent Paulet, admirably though the organist, Christian Wilson, championed them all.

In between, countertenor Tim Travers-Brown and lutenist David Miller offered vocal pieces by Henry Purcell and Pelham Humfrey (good to hear so many of the words). Wilson also framed the programme with Bach’s E Flat Major Prelude and Fugue BWV552, sounding magisterial at full volume in this small chapel – enough to rouse the shades of the three Tudor queens whose bodies (minus their heads) were laid to rest by the altar.

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