The City of London Festival this year is ambitiously programmed, with a number of common themes running through the events. The key themes are walls, trees, and conflict and resolution – and in this intriguingly programmed concert in St Paul’s Cathedral with the London Symphony Orchestra and Tenebrae, the conflict and resolution theme came to the fore, coupled with the further theme of metamorphoses. An intricate interweaving of instrumental and choral music made for an absorbing evening in this beautiful setting, though I left scratching my head about what exactly was meant to emerge from the coming-together of all these highly contrasting concepts.
The programme stretched from the Renaissance to the mid 20th century, and the central, unlikely coupling saw the movements of the Missa L’homme armé by Josquin des Prez (c.1450/55–1521) alternate with Benjamin Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, a series of miniatures for solo oboe. Both the impressive choir Tenebrae, conducted by Nigel Short, and LSO Senior Principal Oboe Emanuel Abbühl moved around the cathedral during this performance, settling somewhere different for each movement. This was an enterprising use of the space, allowing for much contemplative gazing at the cathedral’s many enthralling features, and acoustically it was largely successful. Tenebrae were clear and audible from wherever they found themselves, and the sound for Josquin’s final Agnus Dei, for which they were on the stage in front of all the audience, was full-bodied, and a fittingly magisterial conclusion to this part of the programme. It was odd, then, that rather than applauding, the audience had its attention turned towards the final Britten miniature, performed from somewhere presumably quite far away and hence rather faint. Abbühl played this and all the other movements very well, clearly factoring the resonant acoustic into his interpretation – but unlike with the Josquin, it jarred slightly with its setting.
In the rest of the programme as well, the more spacious, spiritually inclined music fared better. I’m seldom convinced by Arvo Pärt in the concert hall, but this moving performance of the Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten had a gentle solemnity to it, doubtless enhanced by the sound reverberating all around the cathedral. It was wonderfully played, too, by the LSO strings, directed by their leader Gordan Nikolitch. Their rendition of Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, on the other hand, fought a losing battle against the cathedral’s echoes – this is a piece with its own, rather tender architecture, which was swallowed up in this context. It also felt significantly more secular than any of the other items presented, and stuck out for this reason.
Closing the evening was a very special version of Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio. The arrangement for string orchestra was coupled with a later version Barber made for voices – a second Agnus Dei setting for the evening. Made with the permission of Schirmer, Barber’s publishers, this combination of the two pieces was put together by Ian Ritchie, and under Nigel Short’s direction it made a moving end to this concert. Its intense, sinewy melodic lines wound upwards – in contrast to those in both the Pärt and the Strauss, which repeatedly descend – hinting, perhaps, at a slightly more optimistic note.
Overall, this was an aesthetically rewarding concert, but it didn’t do quite as much with its themes as it might have done – there was little sense of dialogue between those perplexingly dissimilar themes of metamorphoses and conflict and resolution. But as an intense, sombre experience, this was an event to remember. We have had a number of recent reviews on Bachtrack which have been significantly affected by their location – here was a concert where it made all the difference.