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Music review: Holy Week in Smith Square

20 April 2018

Roderic Dunnett hears an adventurous range of Passiontide music


St John’s, Smith Square

St John’s, Smith Square

ST JOHN’s, Smith Square, in London, recently launched its second annual Holy Week Festival, building on the success of its enterprising and long-running Christmas programme.

This week, devised and co-ordinated by Nigel Short with his acclaimed choir Tenebrae, produced a feast of first-class ensembles. Peter Phillips’s Tallis Scholars enchanted with an all-Spanish Renaissance programme; Gabrieli (formerly the Gabrieli Consort) yielded Bach’s B-minor Mass in an exquisite period performance; and Stephen Layton’s choir Polyphony gave Bach’s St John Passion with equal skill; and mixed programmes flowed from The Gesualdo Six and the Temple Church Choir.

The Choir of Royal Holloway College championed the Baltic composers, including Eriks Ešenvalds and Vytautas Miškinis, for sensitive performances of whose music it is justly famed, and Lugums naktij (“Prayer to the Night”), affecting settings of contemporary Latvian poetry by a 60-year-old newcomer, Arturs Maskats.

Two unusual items of repertoire deserve an especial mention. In a lunchtime concert on Holy Saturday, the Choir of King’s College, London, brought music by a great modern Russian composer still little known over here: The Sealed Angel, by Rodion Shchedrin, depicts a rural community loyally and passionately protecting a treasured religious ikon, taken from a popular folk tale by the novelist and playwright Nikolai Leskov (1831-95). This is a marvellously affecting work.

On Good Friday, the American choir Skylark presented an evening wholly dedicated to the music (“When Jesus Wept”, “David’s Lamentation”, and other gems) of William Billings (1746 to 1800), probably the most celebrated and gifted composer from the era of West Gallery music.

The US ensemble was new to this festival; and so were Chantage, a British amateur consort of up to several dozen (here, some 28) voices, directed by James Davey, who supplied the first of two Holy Tuesday evening events. The anguished har­monies and aching imitations of Lotti’s Crucifixus are widely cherished, although of notable interest here were the beautifully sung sustaining low bass lines. The chordings of Kenneth Leighton’s “Drop, drop, slow tears” are almost equally luscious, and the choir’s careful and elegant differentiation of Phineas Fletcher’s appealing phrases made a special impact, as did the lovely tender resolution.

Of particular impact was the massive build on the words “et sepultus est”, and the subsequent tender fade­out of Humphrey Clucas’s Crucifixus, which, with the Lotti, gave this appetising programme its title.

The Polish composer Pawel Lukaszewski, whose Two Lenten Motets were included here, is one of the great composers of contemporary European sacred music. Indeed, he figured prominentlly in this festival: his motet “Weary With Toil” formed, along with Arvo Pärt, part of Tenebrae’s Wednesday midweek morning workshop; and his Responsories for both Maundy Thursday and Good Friday proved central to Tenebrae’s inspiring late-night concerts.

Here, “Memento mei, Domine” builds from initial delicacy to pleading urgency, Chantage achieving the tension and growing contrast as effectively as they managed Lukaszewski’s downward descent from anguished to restrained, plus a telling stillness on the words “dum veneris in regnum tuum”. The next item, “Crucem tuam adoramus, Domine”, featured a glorious, enraptured soprano line, a highlight of the whole concert, and a won­drous sudden and unexpected drop in the voices at “venit, venit” (“For behold, by the wood of the cross, joy came into the whole world”).

There was Byrd to come (Haec Dies; his heartrending Miserere, perhaps not quite so evocatively captured, had preceded), Taverner, and the long (arguably over-long) drawn out “Alleluia” of the US composer Eric Whitacre.

But the remaining rare piece was a Latin anthem, “O Sacrum Convivium” by Matthew Sharrock, betimes (I believe) a member of this choir, who weaves attractively shimmering chords over which tenor, then soprano solos bewitchingly ride. It is an enchanting and beguiling setting, radiant with hope, alive and alight, and, as the words say, “filled with grace”, and in which hope blazons in its “pledge of future glory”. Indeed, the whole concert, and festival, could be characterised in much the same terms.

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