La Nuova Musica’s Lenten concert at St John’s Smith Square laid an emphasis on sacred works, yet it was anything but a penance to hear a contrasting programme of alternately familiar and less-known works, spiritual and dramatic. Let me start in reverse order with what might be considered to have been the heart of the evening’s programme, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. The 12 verses of a medieval poem of the suffering of the Virgin Mary at the crucifixion have been set by many other composers through the centuries, including Palestrina, Vivaldi, Hayden and Poulenc. Pergolesi’s version, scored for soprano and alto, is today probably the best known of the 30 or so works which have been firmly attributed to him, not least for the multiple performances during 2010, marking the 400th anniversary of his birth. Pergolesi died from tuberculosis at the age of 26 and both the Stabat Mater and his other well-known sacred work, the Salve Regina, were written in the last few months of his life, yet glimpses of the operatic work which formed the bulk of his compositions filter through, so much so that at the time it was decried as insufficiently spiritual. However, it became particularly popular in France and later in London, and was subsequently arranged by Bach.

The pairing of Lucy Crowe and Tim Mead was perfectly suited to the five solo arias and seven duets which make up this work; Lucy Crowe has a clarion-like soprano with a brightness and energy, allied with control and fluidity, which was so well complemented by Tim Mead’s rich and even counter-tenor. The result was a study in concentration, cleverly allowing the music to do most the work – wonderfully balanced, with no sense of striving or competition, no over-emphasis on the emotion, but instead with beautifully shaped lines and brief but glorious moments of unison.

The evening had begun with Widerstehe doch der Sünde, the first of the four cantatas Bach wrote for solo alto voice in 1726, and right from the dissonance of its opening notes it strikes a note of tension, warning of the need to stand firm against sin. Tim Mead gave a strong and straightforward account, a little slower than is sometimes heard, but with a depth and strength which served to reinforce Bach’s message.

Nominally, Vivaldi’s In furore iustissimae irae (In wrath and most just anger) is a sacred motet, but it features recitative and da capo arias and, really, it was hard not simply to listen to it as a showpiece for the talents of Lucy Crowe. Taken very fast, it comprised fiery and dramatic coloratura, dazzling ornamentation and long, stratospherically high notes. In contrast, Ms Crowe’s smooth and flowing legato brought gentle expressiveness to the intervening slow plea for mercy (Then shall my weeping turn to joy) supported by viola, before more fireworks in the concluding Allelujah. It was a storming performance of a challenging and virtuoso work.

I admit that I found the somewhat extravagant gestures of conductor/harpsichordist David Bates (not to mention his bright orange socks) a little distracting, but the orchestra maintained a lively momentum with a rather unusual prominence to the viola section lending an interesting richness to the overall sound. Their only orchestral piece was Locatelli’s Concerto Grosso in C minor, an imaginative four movement piece, well worth hearing but in the event perhaps more of a useful respite sandwiched between the seriousness and drama of Bach and Vivaldi respectively.