Visiting Islington's magnificent, if dilapidated, Union Chapel last week for Fretwork's London stop on their "Hidden Face Cathedral Tour" brought back happy memories for a regular attender at the old Almeida Festival. In the 1980s, this festival frequently used the north London venue; the Hilliard Ensemble's performance there of Arvo Pärt's St John Passion remains one of my most treasured musical and spiritual, experience. With an early-music group performing new music in an atmospheric church setting, possibly by candlelight, you have the recipe for a very special and uplifting evening.
The large audience was doubtless attracted by music, mainly for countertenor and viol consort, by John Tavener and Tan Dun, as well as Orlando Gibbons. Some of them even came for the prospect of Michael Nyman. And we got some candles, too. But although the singing and playing was admirable, this concert was a great disappointment.
The main problem was the dancing. As Andrew Keeling's Afterwords for five viols, based on a Sylvia Plath poem, began in darkness, two girls in black moved around on the other side of the stage area. As was the case later in the evening, it was sometimes hard both to see them properly and to understand the relevance of their actions to the music.
During the Keeling piece, one girl appeared to be doing the ironing. Later, during the anonymous 16th-century setting In Paradise, both cavorted around the imposing central pulpit. And so it went on, including some very silly business with books and a blindfold during a Pavan and Galliard by Gibbons, and concluding with some hokum involving yards of white cloth and sign language during Nyman's Self-Laudatory Hymn of Inanna and her Omnipotence, declaimed from the pulpit by the countertenor Michael Chance in red robes. The dancers, Maxine Braham and Sarah Fahie, did their best, but the chief culprit was Ian Spink's embarrassing and distracting choreography.
If the music throughout the evening had been more consistently inspired, this might not have mattered. Keeling's Afterwords – quick alternations of stasis and energy, hovering between images of ancient and modern – was actually rather compelling, and A Sinking Love for countertenor and four viols was Tan Dun in his usual Peking Opera style.
But the two newly commissioned works were pretty dismal. Birds on Fire for six viols by Orlando Gough (like Spink, he is an offbeat creative artist I have previously admired) made unimaginatively heavy weather of reworking a couple of klezmer tunes. Unencumbered by any dancing, the selection of pieces from John Woolrich's From the Book of Disquiet nicely featured Nicholas Daniel's valiant oboe in the gallery, with viols on stage, but the music itself was blandly melancholic.
It was only John Tavener's mesmerising The Hidden Face that penetrated my soul, as the full complement of countertenor, oboe and viols, which gave the concert its unusual vocal and instrumental line-up, was magically dispersed about the chapel's galleries. As he does from time to time, Tavener hit the spot.