Choir of St John's | St John's, Smith Square, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

As part of a concert series supporting the work of the National Autistic Society, which is devoted to alleviating a condition that causes mental and physical isolation, an evening of choral works sung by the Choir of St John's at St John's, Smith Square had a telling irony.

Fine communicators, the singers included in their Thursday programme Allegri's Miserere, Tippett's "Five Spirituals" from A Child of Our Time, Elgar's Give unto the Lord and Stainer's The Crucifixion. The choir's founding chorus master, Jeremy Jackman, among the most experienced hands in the field of choral conducting, likewise projected a strong sense of communication to performers and audience alike. One hopes their joint efforts were well rewarded in donations made to the retiring collection.

Alex Duval, bass, sang the cantor's part in the "Miserere", with the quartet of favoriti in the gallery alternating with full choir in the simple structure that Allegri carries through the nineteen verses of his Psalm 51 setting. The four solo singers, two sopranos, tenor and bass, swiftly adjusted to the internal imbalance of texture in their first two responses while retaining the tingle factor of their ornate polyphony.

In the Tippett spirituals, in which soloists are eschewed, but individual lines for "leaders" retain prominence in the music, this well-disciplined group kept its eyes on the conductor and its tempi in pace with his direction to make a rounded account of these choral classics.

Slightly blurred tuning at the start of a few numbers was just a minor blemish, not least when set beside the impressively secure intonation of the unaccompanied "God so loved the world" in Stainer's The Crucifixion. To place this touchstone of Victorian piety beside Elgar's Give unto the Lord - a powerful anthem from 1914 full of swagger but which sounded, in the sopranos' final drooping line, a note of poetry fresh from the Second Symphony - might be thought to work against the more prosaic work.

Not so, however, in this account, in which the keen attention of the choir of St John's, plus the thoughtful registrations prepared by organist Julian Wilkins, proved a winning combination. Delivered straight, and dramatically prepared by a change from minor to major in the preceding organ interlude, the famous "Fling wide the gates" proved a cliché-free zone.

So too did the congregational hymns. Both choir and conductor applied to them the same high standard of performance as was found elsewhere in the piece, so that audience participation also meant shared interpretation.

The words of Christ, "Father forgive them", from the men alone, had an almost plainsong resonance, and there was further variety in the well-chosen contrast of soloists, Howard Milner, tenor, and Kenneth Burgess, bass, whose vocal timbres, heard separately or in duet, easily filled the church.