Review: Maundy Thursday Music at Kings

JOE CONWAY: ‘Like the very spirit of Maundy Thursday this programme posed questions and raised issues, but provided no happy endings.’

Britten Classical Holy Sonnets of John Donne Kings College Chapel Maudy Thursday

1st April 8.30pm at King's College Chapel. £15

Outside, on a wintry evening the tree near the east window of King's College Chapel looked stark and bare. Inside, the altar had been stripped of its cloth, and the reredos painting hidden away behind closed doors. For believers the comfort of holy communion was withdrawn, and their duty to follow Christ into Gethsemane for the final hours of his agony was highlighted. As ever, Maundy Thursday was living up to its reputation as one of the glummest days in the church's year.

As an aid to meditation and inspiration in this darkest hour of the Christian calendar, King's presented a sequence of late-night music which was also part of its Easter festival. Inevitably, in a building of such historic magnificence and sheer beauty, there was always going to be a degree of tension. Between spiritual striving on the one hand, and an inescapable sense of privilege and prestige on the other.

But, to be fair, there was very little comfort on offer in a programme of English 20th century spiritual music which would have been generally unfamiliar to most members of the audience – me included. No sweeteners and certainly nothing to create complacency. Like the very spirit of Maundy Thursday this programme posed questions and raised issues, but provided no happy endings.

It had been cleverly constructed by pianist Jeremy Begbie around one substantial work, Benjamin Britten's Holy Sonnets of John Donne – which contains no less than nine highly-charged and demanding songs. Richard Edgar-Wilson proved to be a thoroughly sympathetic interpreter with a light, darting tenor voice which inevitably will have reminded many people of Britten's partner Peter Pears.

Finding the appropriate characterisation for each song seemed to pose no problems for Richard, even though many of them start in mid-flight. Being by Britten, the songs are spectacularly well-written. A couple of repeated notes, short and long, or two neighbouring notes cleverly developed, are the simple building blocks Britten uses to create substantial structures.

The piano parts which he wrote for himself to play are also miniature masterpieces and Richard Begbie realised them with sensitivity and dexterity – numbers 4 and 8 being particularly neat and nimble. While number 9 was particularly touching.

Orbiting round the Britten were pairs of shorter pieces by James Macmillan and Herbert Howells. James is composer-in-residence at King's during Holy Week, and it's fair to assume that his presence at this concert will have provided additional inspiration for the performers. Certainly there was no shortage of intensity and commitment in Julian Azkoul's masterly performance of A Different World, again accompanied by Jeremy Begbie.

Or do I mean Jeremy accompanied by Julian? For this short piece starts with an unusual musical role-reversal, the violin playing trills and crossing strings in the background while the piano delivers a haunting Gaelic-inflected tune. In Kiss on Wood the cellist Morwenna Del Mar contributed a passionate introduction before playing a melody literally in unison with the piano. Another highly unusual effect which demanded the utmost concentration from both players.

Earlier Julian and Morwenna playing together as one had produced a golden string tone in Howell's beautiful but disturbing setting of By the Waters of Babylon. This time they were accompanied by King's senior organ scholar Peter Stevens. The passionate vocal line was sung by baritone Richard Lloyd Morgan, the opera singer who doubles as acting Dean of King's. Or do I mean the acting Dean of King's who doubles as opera singer?

The remaining work on the programme and the only solo item was Howells' De Profundis thoughtfully played by Peter Stevens. Unexpectedly this contemplative piece seemed to owe more to the organ music of Olivier Messiaen than to the composer's pal Ralph Vaughan Williams. But, as they say, there are many doors into the kingdom of heaven . . .