Review: Britten Sinfonia and Polyphony

JOE CONWAY: ‘adventurous programming reflected credit on everyone involved – not least the capacity audience who turned out to hear a concert of largely unfamiliar 21st Century music.’

Britten Carolyn Sampson classical music Eriks Esenvalds Lloyd Webber Trinity College

8th April 8pm at Trinity College Chapel. £29/£24/£7


Eriks Esenvalds clearly felt like a million dollars at the end of Thursday's performance of his oratorio Passion and Resurrection. This half-hour long, multi-textured vocal, choral and orchestral work made a stunning impression at Trinity College Chapel, and as the 33-year-old Latvian composer acknowledged the prolonged applause he was visibly moved – and no wonder.

The performance was a collaborative effort involving the strings of the Britten Sinfonia, the mixed choir Polyphony, and the soprano Carolyn Sampson, under the authoritative direction of Stephen Layton. And the adventurous programming reflected credit on everyone involved – not least the capacity audience who turned out to hear a concert of largely unfamiliar 21st Century music.

Eriks' take on the searing events of the first Easter ends with music that is as moving as it is unforgettable, even on a first hearing. A minimalistic riff of two alternating chords, with the choir singing just one word – Mariam. This invocation isn't addressed to Jesus' mother however, but to Mary Magdalene who, in this collection of Biblical and traditional texts, not only offers but receives comfort.

Carolyn Sampson brought a vivid stage presence to the role of Mary – intimate and sympathetic, yet dramatic too. Her first appearance overlapped with a slow psalm-like introduction sung quite beautifully by an all-male vocal quartet drawn from the choir's ranks. Later orchestra and choir added their own separate musical commentary to the ongoing drama, each of these elements having its own material, which nevertheless blended brilliantly with the others.

This simultaneous deployment of widely different musics has been done in this kind of context before – notably by Benjamin Britten in his War Requiem and by Andrew Lloyd Webber in his Requiem. But Eriks Esenvalds' piece perhaps goes further in successfully integrating operatic, liturgical, choral and orchestral styles.

There were many memorable moments. Few people in the audience are likely to forget the unnerving shrieks of 'Crucify!' or the response 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.' Another highlight was Mary's reference to the Last Supper, beautifully introduced by the orchestral violas. (Shades of The Da Vinci Code perhaps!). Throughout the whole work Carolyn's vocal line was supported by gloriously mellow, vibrant singing from Polyphony who, on this showing, must be one of the most accomplished choral groups around. 

Earlier the choir had sung no less than five other works by this talented but little known composer. The first of them was called Vakars, and established immediately that, despite its unfamiliarity, the music was easy to relate to as it employs a fairly traditional language. Admittedly in Piliens Okeana there were a few nods in the direction of once-fashionable avant-garde gimmicks. But actually the whistling, whispering and chanting in Erik's piece were not only imaginative but essential in suggesting eerily storm-tossed seas.

To complement Eriks Esenvalds' choral pieces the Britten Sinfonia had began the programme with one of the best known instrumental works by Arvo Part, the Estonian composer who spear-headed the Spiritual Minimalist group to which Eriks evidently belongs. Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten is a static 6-minute long piece which bathes its audience in the healing power of traditional tonality and luxuriant string chords. Unusually, it reaches its thrilling climax with the players' lowest notes. An undoubted contemporary classic, it received a gorgeous performance directed from the first violin desk by Jacqueline Shave. Mmmm . . . the fading chime that ends the piece has got to be one of the best and most memorable effects in late 20th century music. And yet it's all so simple . . .

And if only the concert had stayed with this homogeneous repertoire I think everyone would have gone away happy and I could have been wholly positive in this review. But alas the remaining work on the programme turned out to be problematic. Bach's Double Violin Concerto is one of the most sublime works ever penned. But what was this piece written in 1723 doing in the middle of a concert of contemporary spiritual music?

Okay, juxtapositions of works from different eras can be worthwhile and illuminating. But only if they are played with equal conviction and commitment. But whereas the works by Esenvalds and Part were performed with unhurried dignity and respect, the Bach concerto was rushed through in a way that bordered on the absurd.

I mean if you've opened a rare bottle of St Emilion you savour the sensation. The quality is so good that you don't want the experience to end. You don't down it in one like a tequila slammer! And it wasn't only speed that spoiled this performance, but a strange discrepancy between Thomas Gould's intricate phrasing and rubato and Miranda Dale's much straighter approach. I always thought the two violins were meant to speak with one voice and and duplicate each other's phrasing and other mannerisms. But maybe the players know something I don't.