On a storm tossed Saturday night, with rain pounding the South and West of England and the Thames running so fast and so high rowing crews were barred from the river, I was transported to the far north of Britain, to an island at the edge of land and the edge of light.
St Peter's, Eaton Square hosted a recital by the wonderful Elysian Singers, directed by Sam Laughton. The other worldly feel began as soon as I stepped into the church. Destroyed by a fire started in 1987 by an anti-papist arsonist who mistook the classical High Anglican building for a Catholic chapel, the church was rebuilt from scratch in 1991. The arsonist may have been a blessing in disguise, as the interior now has a very welcome cleanliness, purity and intimacy, with seating clustered in circles round the altar. The stand out feature of the church, though, is the sanctuary: a simple concave area painted all in gold furnished only with a tabernacle and a lit lamp hanging from the ceiling, it draws the eye wherever you are in the building, and is a simple statement of the numinous. St Peter’s was therefore the perfect setting for a performance that combined simplicity with transcendence.
One of the UK’s leading chamber choirs, the Elysian Singers truly live up to their name; there is something heavenly about their singing. The first half of the programme featured Scottish love songs set by the contemporary composer James MacMillan, establishing the northern theme from the start. The second half was devoted to a piece which brought together two men from Orkney, one a native and the other an incomer: the poet George Mackay Brown, and the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. It was a setting of a long poem by Mackay Brown covering the history of Orkney from its pagan Viking days, through the arrival of Christianity to the encroachments of the oil industry, and closing with an invocation of St Magnus, martyr and patron saint of Orkney. Both the music and the words spoke of the extremes of light and darkness, both literal and metaphorical, that inhabit such a northernmost point, and bring an intense clarity and simplicity. For the duration of the piece, I felt washed clean by its words and its music, taken out of the clutter and complications of London life. Stepping out into the street afterwards, where the glare of the street lamps, the orange glow of the taxi lights and the brash red of the buses all shouldered the darkness of winter aside, I felt briefly like a visitor in my own city. But then another gust of wind blew up, shaking the naked trees in the churchyard, reminding us that, with the floods moving steadily east, and getting closer to the city with every hour, London no less than Orkney can be shaped by the elements.