St John’s, Smith Square used to be a venue with a questionable future, with occasionally fewer people in the audience than on the platform. But a new regime has turned the place around (quite literally in that there are plans to shift the platform from one end to the other). And the innovations include a Holy Week Festival 2017 of choral music, drawing on the success of a similar fixture that runs there at Christmas.
As a former church that feels in many ways as though it still were, Smith Square suits collective singing. The acoustic is supportive without being over-resonant. The ambience is excellent. Running from Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday with contributions from Polyphony, Tenebrae and a host of others, it was if nothing else an opportunity to hear in quick succession some of the best choral groups around, comparing and contrasting. And one group that I fear suffered from the comparison was the BBC Singers, who delivered a programme of English Tudor polyphony and Poulenc with their usual deadening combination of professionalism and reserve. They typify self-conscious excellence: it’s very proper singing, by the book, but never catching fire. And rarely heartfelt.
There were problems too with Voces8, a consort who invest much effort in their image – they’re extremely well turned-out, their snappy wardrobe sponsored by shirtmakers TM Lewin – and produce a polished sound to match. But peel away the presentation and there’s not the core, substantial quality you hear from other top-end groups.
At Smith Square they began well with a sequence of Gibbons, Tallis and Mendels-sohn, and flourished in some new music of a spatial, holy minimalist kind by Alexander Levine. But their attempt to do justice with eight voices to an oratorio-like piece conceived for several hundred – Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year – felt thin. That they looked so pleased with themselves when it was over didn’t help.
Nathan Williamson is a pianist-composer who doesn’t make headlines but ought to, because he does fine work. And a good example is Great American Sonatas, the CD of keyboard music he’s just launched with a concert at London’s chic little 1901 Arts Club, featuring works by Charles Ives and Lou Harrison, and a brilliant, early, style-searching sonata by Bernstein that you might dismiss as too beguiled by self-important grandeur but nevertheless demands a hearing. As does Williamson’s decisive playing.
The disc is released on the SOMM label. For anyone interested in American repertoire, it’s a must.
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