City of London Sinfonia at Cadogan Hall

Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op.10
Songs of Silence (concerto for guitar and strings) [London premiere]
Hymn to the Virgin
Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten
Chorale after an old French Carol
The Rio Grande

Craig Ogden (guitar)

Martin Roscoe (piano) & Fiona Mackay (contralto)

The Holst Singers

City of London Sinfonia
Stephen Layton

Thomas Guthrie – Director; Sarah Dowling – Choreographer; Kath Duggan & Conor Doyle – Dancers; Mandarava – Puppet-maker [The Rio Grande]

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 30 October, 2010
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Stephen Layton. Photograph: Benjamin EalovegaAs befits a conductor of such notable pedigree in choral singing, Stephen Layton has a clear beat and marshals his forces in a firm and disciplined fashion. However in the orchestral field made up of excellent professionals such direction limits the ability for expression and the performance of Britten’s youthful though, in many ways, perfectly composed Frank Bridge Variations was efficient but heartless. It was as if we were listening to Stravinsky and not the composer whose best music is full of feeling and in need of tenderness and care.

Ëriks Ešenvalds is a young Latvian composer making his way through his choral music which is how Layton first encountered him. Songs of Silence, a subdued guitar concerto if ever there was one, is serious, sonorous and soporific; strictly Classic FM material you might say. In many ways this is a beautiful work, like an incessant sunset on a cloudless evening. But the sun does set and night does fall. This work could not tell the difference and no darkness settled over the music. It was merely pretty and unpretentious. Craig Ogden was the mellifluous soloist.

Arvo Pärt’s in memoriam to Britten is also serious and sonorous but never soporific. Night does fall and the listener is taken to a slow descent into in interior imagination of sadness for a fallen hero. The tolling bell has the last word and we are left alone to reflect on our own losses in life.

Layton managed the intricate harmonies such that the feeling of an inexorable progress towards consolation was experienced.Before and after the Pärt we heard choral music both from the emerging master and then the mature one sung with grace and poise by the Holst Singers. Here Layton discarded his baton and the sense of emotional release in his performance was tangible. A greater confidence in front of his orchestra could surely allow for a similar move away from a tendency towards a metronomic approach in non-choral repertoire.

Mind you, in his first London appearance as Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of City of London Sinfonia, Layton probably needed this aid in the final work, a rumbustious performance of Constant Lambert’s The Rio Grande, in which he organised his forces (including alto soloist and chorus) to maximum effect. We were treated to an additional delight in having two puppets help illustrate the emotions in the work. Well, puppets are all the rage at the National Theatre so there is no reason not to enjoy the skills of puppeteers to soak up the jazzy atmosphere of Lambert’s colourful work. Martin Roscoe was the excellent pianist, scampering up and down the keyboard.

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