There is no shortage of good countertenors in the world, yet the performance of Michael Chance at St John’s, Smith Square on Saturday evening confirmed him as one of the greatest around.
Rarely have I encountered a male alto so rounded, so effortlessly controlled and projected with such expressive fluency.
And how few people were there to hear it, with the cavernous hall barely a quarter full.
Who could blame the English Baroque Choir for sounding nervous in Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater, given the rows of empty seats facing them? At the start, heads were lowered into scores, consonants were poorly placed and few sections attacked their lines with true vigour. It was to the credit of the amateur (though not unestablished) choir that they quickly overcame their nerves and embraced Scarlatti’s contemplative, even elegiac, setting. Textural clarity is key, and if the acoustic was unkind to the more dense counterpoint, the illumination of lines was often surprisingly clear.
There were many coups: the languishing hush on spiritum in the third stanza was effective in suggesting Scarlatti’s awed reverence; the two solo voices in the culminating movements were clear and firm of coloratura (on this evidence, the soprano could walk into any choir in the world); the tenor section found an enveloping baritonal warmth that contributed admirably to Scarlatti’s antiphonal layering of parts. If the conducting of Jeremy Jackman lacked a sense of progression from A to B, the performance provided much to savour.
It was in Tony Hewitt-Jones’ Seven Sea Poems that sections truly found their voices. In the chilling, blustery opening movement, the open throated delivery from the full choir was shattering; in the fugal setting of those lines from The Tempest, every ounce of counterpoint was shaped and moulded into a single swelling and subsequent relaxing of tension. And who would not be roused by the all-male chorus, No. 5, here delivered with raucous humour and gleeful irreverence by the tenors and basses?
Yet the star was still Michael Chance, whose voice is by turn upright and wild, subtly deployed and violently virtuosic. It is also near genderless, and the arrogant ease with which Chance flies into his top register is breathtaking. His greatest achievement was perhaps to make such a strong case for this rarely performed, stylistically incongruous work, in which words from so many sources are set to music referencing all from Bach to Wagner to Gershwin. It is no masterpiece, but this performance could have fooled anyone.
And no less of a treat was Bach’s Cantata 169, though the obbligato organist’s tempi were frustratingly off and his notes often not the right ones. The Brandenburg Sinfonia provided a meaty tone, and Chance’s passages of recitative were courageously phrased. In the second alto aria, he breathed his runs with astounding fluency, and drama was found without a hint of either a hoot or a swoop. The chorale (delivered by the choir with impeccable clarity) provided true emotional release after such a life-affirming performance.