Britten: Sacred and Profane (CD Review - The Evening Standard, 2001)

After hearing their latest CD of choral works by Britten, nothing will dissuade me from the conclusion that Polyphony under Stephen Layton is the best chamber choir in the country. Listen to the pinpoint articulation in I mon waxe wood from the collection Sacred and Profane Op91. The high sopranos are lithe, strong and young. They rattle out the semiquavers even at altitude with precision and clarity. Carol (Maiden in the mor lay) from the same set is the loveliest piece on the disc with its urgent whisper and whiplash What. The wonderful men-only Rustics and Fishermen from the Choral Dances from Gloriana has a taste of salt in the breeze. Earnest labourers stride home and the sorrow of loss rears its head. Such rural livings are gone for ever. The disc is also distractingly poignant.
But for Britten, much poetry would go unread and unheard. The Five Flower Songs Op47 preserve exquisite verse by the long-dead Robert Herrick, George Crabbe and John Clare. The collection AMDG sets those poems by the mystic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins which are signed with the above initials. Britten withdrew the set so they are not well-known. Rosa Mystica binds a lilting jig around the chanting note A. God's grandeur spins out the title like a forceful mantra against un-churchy imagery ('like shining from shook foil'). Polyphony performs the set with seraphic, not to say highly professional conviction.

Easter is an appropriate time to recommend a recording of Beethoven's great 70-minute Missa Solemnis performed by the SWR Radio-Sinfonieorchester under Chief Conductor Sir Roger Norrington with the NDR Choir and the SWR Vokalensemble. The performance is powerfully old-fashioned. The Christe eleison drives on against Beethovenian adversity and the Gloria breaks into paradise with the arrival of blazing trumpets. The power-soloists are heroic and the choir weighty, at times unduly so. Actually the sopranos sound rather bosomy. Give me Polyphony’s sweet nightingales any time.

Stephen Layton conducts Polyphony in Bach’s St John Passion at 2.30pm on Good Friday in St John’s Smith Square.

Rick Jones

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