Thursday, 21 November 2013

Britten at Temple Church

Britten playing the recorder
The Temple Singers, members of the Holst Singers, choristers from Temple Church Choir, oboist Nicholas Daniels and the Aurora Orchestra under conductor Roger Sayer joined together at the Temple Church on 20 November in an all Britten programme celebrating the composer's centenary. The Temple Singers sang Britten's Antiphon, Op.56b, Hymn to the Virgin and Five Flower Songs, Nicholas Daniels played the Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, Op.49, then the Temple Singers were joined by members of the Holst Singers and the Aurora Orchestra for a performance of Britten's cantata St. Nicolas with Sam Furness singing the tenor solo. The conductor was Roger Sayer, the music director of Temple Church.

Britten's Antiphon was written for the centenary of St Michael's College, Tenbury in 1956 and the text involves repeated statements in God's praise by the choir, men and the angels (solo sopranos). Britten uses two different qualities of music, with lively choral outburst alternating with slower contemplative music for the male chorus and for the solo sopranos. Much of the work's interest comes from the Tavener-like interaction between the two and it was a shame that Roger Sayer did not take advantage of the church's acoustics and have the solo sopranos separate from the main body of the choir as Britten suggests.


Hymn to the Virgin was written when Britten was still at school, it is an amazing work and still has the power to entrance. As with Antiphon he uses two groups of performers, with a smaller semi-chorus (single soprano, alto, tenor, bass) placed at some distance from choir, here they were placed behind the audience in the Round Church which resulted in some highly effective interactions. This was a finely judged performance with lovely, well pointed words.

The Temple Singers are a professional group of singers based around the singing men from Temple Church Choir. Conducted by Roger Sayer, this was his first concert engagement in Temple Church since his recent appointment as Music Director.

Nicholas Daniels then played Britten's Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, written for solo oboe in 1951. Each movement evokes one of the stories from Ovid, Pan, Phaeton, Niobe, Bacchus, Narcissus and Arethusa. Daniels played the first movement whilst walking in to the church then played the remainder from the pulpit, introducing each movement briefly. Pan evokes the God playing a reed pipe (his love Syrinx), with Daniels playing with lovely long lyrical lines and a finely rounded, sweet tone. Phaeton described his driving of the chariot of the Sun and subsequent fall with some brilliant oboe playing. Niobe is of course weeping; Daniels gave us a lovely singing line and melancholy tone with drooping lines hinting at weeping. Bacchus was simply an excuse for a party, in a highly characterful movement, with sparkling chattering on the oboe and a superb throwaway ending. Narcissus was a slow contemplative number, rather haunting and thought provoking. Finally Arethusa, yet more water, this time she is turned into a fountain, with lovely flowing lines. In all the movements Daniels' rounded and sweetly expressive tone filled the church.

The Temple Singers then sang Britten's Five Flower Songs. To Daffodils was wonderfully impulsive, with a beautiful shape to the phrases and a fine legato. The opening verse seemed almost too impulsive to allow the words to carry in the acoustic, but it invoked the meaning of the text wonderfully. There was a lovely sense of line in the successive entries in The Succession of the Four Sweet Months, and the singers clearly relished the words in Britten's setting of Crabbe's Marsh Flowers, giving us some vivid word painting. The Evening Primrose was sung with great beauty and their clarity of tone deflected the sentimentality of the poem. Finally the brilliant Ballad of Green Broom, deliberately something of a tour de force here sung with great character and great control and a superbly thrilling acclerando at the end. The Five Flower Songs are deservedly Britten's best known secular unaccompanied choral works and here they received a finely tuned performance from Sayer and the Temple Singers.

After the interval the Temple Singers were joined by members of the Holst Singers and the Aurora Orchestra for a performance of Britten's cantata St Nicolas which was written for the centenary of Lancing College in 1948. Written for semi-amateur performance, Britten's choral and orchestral parts were deliberately written to be technically within the reach of his performers. But he disposes of his forces very imaginatively and the combination of strings, percussion (3 players), timpani and piano duet made for some highly evocative and rather striking writing in the accompaniment. In addition to the main choir, there was an off stage semi-chorus of sopranos, plus tenor Sam Furness singing Nicolas. The other solos were sung by choristers from Temple Church Choir with Luke McWatters as the Boy Nicolas and Osian Guthrie, Emerson Murphy and Alessandro Godawatta as the Pickled Boys.

Eric Crozier's libretto in nine movements relates episodes from the life of St. Nicolas. In the dramatic Introduction the present day chorus invokes the spirit of St Nicolas with Sam Furness delivering the solo with firm tones and trenchant delivery. Britten set The birth of Nicolas as a rather perky waltz, with lovely solos from McWatters as the Boy Nicolas. Nicolas devotes himself to God was a long solo for Sam Furness who displayed a lovely lyric tenor voice. Starting from expressive arioso and gradually developing into something more dramatic, edgy and rather moving.

He journeys to Palestine is more of a choral show piece as the chorus gets to describe the tempest which assails the ship, which they did so in brilliantly vivid manner. Nicolas comes to  Myra and is chosen Bishop showed Britten's skill in construction, as he gradually built up an ensemble which led to the congregational hymn, All People That on Earth Do DwellNicolas in Prison was another fine solo for Furness who was dramatically vivid, with Britten's string writing rather referring back to his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.

The telling of the story of Nicolas's miracle resurrecting the pickled boys was done in a rather expressive march, contrasted with the plangent music for the dead boys' mothers sung by the female semi-chorus, and a lovely cameo at the end from Osian Guthrie, Emerson Murphy and Alessandro Godawatta as the Pickled Boys. His piety and marvellous works is another chorus movement, describing Nicolas's legends in another of Britten's great tunes, with the chorus bringing an infectious sense of narrative to the work. Whilst the piece was written for an amateur chorus it was clear that the experienced singers of the Temple Choir and the Holst Singers were having a great time performing it. In the final movement Britten combines a lovely chant setting of the Nunc Dimittis in the chorus with a powerful solo for the tenor soloist, with Furness giving us a finely rhapsodic and impassioned performance. All concluded with a final hymn, God moves in a mysterious way.

St Nicolas is one of those works where Britten transcended any perceived limitations in writing for a mixture of amateurs and professions to create a highly dramatic and imaginative whole, here rendered brilliantly by Sayer and his performers. A fitting centenary tribute indeed.

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