Written in 1948, Benjamin Britten’s cantata St Nicolas seems to belong to another, more innocent age when profound truths could be spoken with childlike simplicity. The music is straightforward, guileless and accessible – utilitarian in its desire to serve the ordinary listener, but alive with genius. The words (by Eric Crozier) tell St Nicolas’s legends in an unselfconsciously poetic way, with wonderful economy. And there’s one heart-stopping moment, where three Pickled Boys are resurrected from a grisly end as sandwich meat and march in from the back declaiming Alleluias, which invariably leaves no dry eye in the house.
St John’s, Smith Square unfortunately isn’t laid out for processions, so we didn’t get that when the piece played there last week. But we did get a performance of arresting strength by a new ensemble called the London Choral Sinfonia under conductor Michael Waldron.
Choral Sinfonia is a name that suggests enthusiastic amateurs in serried ranks doing their annual Messiah; but this group is actually a crack force of young professionals who sing/play with a winning combination of technique and impact. You don’t often hear St Nicolas performed by an all-pro ensemble, and in truth it’s not intended for that kind of excellence: it’s a community experience, first written for a school choir and designed to tolerate rough edges. But immaculately done as here, it flourishes on different terms – less loveable perhaps but more impressive. And I was certainly impressed by the soloist Nick Pritchard, who is one of the hot new tenors on the circuit and sang the title role with the ardour I recall from its finest exponent, the late Philip Langridge.
Programmed alongside the premiere of a tonal, tuneful setting of Carol Ann Duffy’s text The Christmas Truce by Oliver Rudland which ended, as it were, in mid-flight (but with the promise of more to come), it made a memorable first outing for a choir and orchestra with something real to offer. They just need a different name.
The prospect of experiencing Peter Maxwell Davies’s abrasive classic Eight Songs for a Mad King in the pathology museum of St Bart’s Hospital was captivating enough to get me to a performance by Shadwell Opera last week. And it was indeed an experience, surrounded by unsettling displays of disease and disfigurement in glass jars that matched the unsettling nature of the piece. But the performance wasn’t special.
The Mahler songs preceding it were dull. And the idea of filling the interval with a life class, in which the audience was invited to draw pictures of a woman dressed in nothing but tattoos and bandages, was the most pointless thing I’ve ever witnessed in a concert. Could do better.