For better or worse, an adjective rarely appropriate for concerts is ‘brave’, but this was emphatically the case throughout Britten Sinfonia’s Palm Sunday concert at Birmingham Town Hall. Sobriety and sombre hues were the dress code and colour scheme for a sequence of works exploring a depth and intensity of pain that can only be described as abject. Alongside the players were the 24 singers of Britten Sinfonia Voices, a group founded in 2011 comprising a mix of established and emergent vocal talent. For voices and players alike, that talent was seriously tested in a programme staring unflinchingly into the void.

Britten Sinfonia Voices © Benjamin Ealovega
Britten Sinfonia Voices
© Benjamin Ealovega

Byrd’s motet Miserere mei, Deus went some way to establish the tone. Its harmonic richness prevents the music from entirely living up to the penitential urgency of the text, although an avoidance of cadential finality keeps the music from settling, and the singers demonstrated lovely control over its tense, undulating contours. It was the first of many occasions when conductor Eamonn Dougan would demonstrate a remarkable knack for finding the perfect balance between allowing the emotion time to speak while keeping everything moving. The beauty and power of Bach’s music depends on it being lifted out of being merely the aural equivalent of a period drama. It, too, benefited from a brisk, bright approach that afforded both words – a rare instance of optimistic hope in the concert – and music the freshness of a lemon-scented towel.

Having ambled thus far at the edge of the abyss, our communal plunge into it now began. Conductor and singers left the stage for Rudolf Barshai’s famous transcription for string orchestra of Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet. Reborn as a Chamber Symphony, it highlights even more emphatically the weird, troubling drama of a work written when its composer was fully intending to commit suicide. The myriad quotations from Shostakovich’s earlier works send mixed signals: a final revisiting of cherished creations, or a self-loathing act of blunt ridicule (parody, after all, being second nature to Shostakovich)? Either way, there was the profound sense of a composer in the confessional, articulated with an authentic sense of discomfort by Britten Sinfonia. In a work that offers essentially nothing resembling a respite, the players brought a lightness of delivery through the faster movements that for a time kept at bay the dread at its core. But only for a time; through a concluding pair of Largo movements, Shostakovich places his pulse into ever more quicksand, where everything – even a fugue – becomes increasingly concentrated and claustrophobic. As the music came full circle, the players managed to make returning ideas the antithesis of a recapitulation; we were back where we started, stupefied and numb, and the way they lingered upon the work’s agonized final cadence – music that almost cannot bear to end – was horribly effective and very moving indeed.

Eamonn Dougan and Britten Sinfonia Voices returned for the second half featuring a rare performance of James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross. A 45-minute meditation on this subject needs to be punishing, and it is, for performers and audience alike. Even more than the Shostakovich, this is music in extremis, where thoughts and feelings are pushed beyond the limits of rationality, resulting in a complex blend of sweetness and agony. Dougan’s judgement and skill were genuinely brilliant here, drawing out the nuances in MacMillan’s shifting palette yet never allowing even the slightest hint of indulgence – even in the tricky third movement, which in the wrong hands takes on the saccharine viscosity of condensed milk. In this performance, that sweetness finally made sense as a kind of delirious ecstasy, but even this was dismissed as soon as it had spoken. Furthermore, Dougan often moved between movements with minimal pause, which not only strengthened the work’s continuity but provided valuable distance from being rendered as a kind of ‘concert liturgy’. MacMillan’s Seven Last Words are rooted in collisions, multi-layered textures that present a serious challenge in respect of clarity and diction. Of the former, it was the most transparent performance I have yet experienced, rendering the askew symmetry of the central movement (one of MacMillan’s best creations) into a lucid, lyrical ascent and decline, and making the aghast final sections heart-stoppingly vivid. Regarding the latter, Britten Sinfonia Voices’ diction was perfect: singing, whispering, even borderline hollering, every word they uttered was audible, the increasingly desperate message all too clear. Having stopped our hearts, the conclusion then broke them, hammer blows precipitating the already desiccated music’s disintegration into wisps and fragments, forgotten as soon as they were heard.

If only more concerts had the courage to plumb such unfathomable depths. It was an expression of truly exquisite pain, a seasonal challenge that left one much to ponder.