Winter solstice: the longest, darkest night of the year. How better to spend it than with a top soprano, a theatrical knight, and six viols, and where better than in the soft blue gloom of Kings Place? All came with promising baggage: the Fretwork ensemble had just released a remarkable viol-arrangement of Bach's 'Goldberg Variations'; Clare Wilkinson had dazzled us a few days previously with her a cappella exploits with I Fagiolini; and Sir Tom Courtenay – well, we knew where he was coming from. Fretwork would provide instrumental music, Courtenay would give us poems.
The first of these was Donne's densely mysterious 'A nocturnal upon St Lucy's day': 'Tis the year's midnight... The world's whole sap is sunk... absence, darkness, death – things which are not'. But what came out of Courtenay's mouth was a shock: a quizzical, old-fashioned Shakespeare-bark, with overtones of Alan Bennett in querulously comic mode. He had a 'concept' of sorts, but there was no sense of Donne's labyrinthine thoughts germinating, no sense of line.
But this concert was a rich medley, so we quickly passed on via a bleak setting by Duncan Druce of Henry Vaughn's poem 'Bereavement', Ted Hughes's 'The warm and the cold', a viol fantasy by John Woolrich, Shakespeare's 56th sonnet, and John Dowland's immortal 'In darkness let me dwell'. This was the pattern repeated throughout the evening, and three truths emerged. First, that, for all his dramatic eminence, Courtenay has remarkably little idea what to do with any poetry apart from Philip Larkin's – he managed to substitute bathos for pathos in one of Sylvia Plath's most heart-wrenching poems; second, that Clare Wilkinson's clean, pure delivery marks her out as one of the best young singers in the Renaissance game; and third, that the viol-consort has a potentially big future as well as a glorious past.
Four new works confirmed this latter fact: a powerful piece entitled 'Afterwords' by Andrew Keeling, and three works by young composers given awards this year by the National Centre for Early Music. Christopher Roberts's 'my o'er flowing teares' applied to the viols the full panoply of contemporary string-effects; Sarah Gait's 'Death Fires' was a cleverly constructed sequence of atmospheres; and 16-year-old Bertie Baigent's 'In memoriam In Nomine' was an exquisite essay in post-Bartokian harmonies and textures.