The candlelit intimacy and Jacobean elegance of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse makes it, in the words of a fellow audience member in the interval, the most magical theatre in London... unless, I suspect, you are required to sing in it, since the minimal distance between you and the audience and the crystal clarity of the acoustic mean that there’s nowhere to hide: the tiniest imperfection will be instantly audible.

© David Karlin
© David Karlin

Which makes Mark Padmore’s performance last night all the more impressive, because we could hear every nuance of every note, with hardly an imperfection in the whole evening. Not only is the basic timbre of Padmore’s voice dark and appealing, but he enunciates English so as to make every word intelligible, while still being able to develop the colours during the course of a longer note – a touch of vibrato here, a slight crescendo there – to produce effects that thrill without ever being overstated. His opening number, John Dowland’s Come again, sweet love, was worth the entrance money on its own.

Before each item on the programme, Padmore read us a passage from Charles Burney’s History of Music, published between 1776 and 1789, the theme of the concert being to follow Burney’s travels through Europe as he met a plethora of the great musicians of his age in preparation for his magnum opus. These extracts were highly entertaining, no more so than when Burney is blatantly wrong – and he is very clear on what he does and doesn’t like. Padmore’s marvellous rendering of Dowland was preceded by a piece in which Burney describes Dowland’s vocal music as being entirely without merit. This was followed after the interval by Burney excoriating the French language as being utterly unsuited to singing, whereupon Padmore proceeded to spellbind us with Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Stanzas from Le Cid, in which Pierre Corneille’s words proved the opposite in a way that one would defy a present day listener to dispute. This was difficult singing territory, however, with Padmore less than 100% convincing at the very top of his range.

One of Burney's own compositions, Oh Sylvia, was interesting in the context of the concert without labelling Burney as an improperly forgotten genius. By contrast, Purcell’s Evening Hymn and Morning Hymn provided ample demonstration of their composer's uniqueness: it’s music that is recognisable as being of its age, but only just, so many are the surprises that Purcell springs on you. But the best was kept until last. Taking his cue from Shakespeare, Burney describes Handel as “bestriding our world like a colossus” and Padmore’s rendition of “Total Eclipse”, from Samson, proved just why that was so. Moving on from the intimacy of Dowland and Purcell and the courtly elegance of Charpentier, Padmore let loose the forces of darkness as he launched into Samson’s despair at being blinded. I was blown away.

The instrumental parts of the evening, played by Harry Bicket and musicians from The English Concert, were less consistently successful. The Biber violin sonata which opened the evening was somewhat unbalanced by the choice of instrumentation: one Baroque violin competing with three continuo instruments (cello, theorbo and harpsichord). In the slower passages, Nadia Zweiner wasn’t really able to develop enough character in the violin line to overcome an accompaniment that rather turned into mush. The Geminiani that ended the first half fared better, especially we moved into the second movement Allegro: Zweiner was completely at home in the high-wire virtuosic material, with semiquaver runs executed with panache.

Lutenist William Carter demonstrated the beauty and calm of Dowland’s solo lute music with a fine Pavan, showing us both the wonders of the hall (the beauty of every line and chord being clear) and its perils (the slightest timing hesitation was evident). Playing a cello sonata by Francesco Alborea, cellist Joseph Crouch didn’t quite live up the contemporary belief (as Burney relates it) that Alborea must have been possessed by an angel to produce such music, but was none the less a pleasant addition to the programme.

The concert closed with Biber as it had begun, with another demonstration of semiquaver fireworks from Zweiner. But the evening belonged to Padmore. When it comes to singing English with beauty and intelligibility, I can’t think of anyone singing today who can match him.