In celebration of the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, the Hong Kong Arts Festival this year is presenting three programmes of works by the composer in collaboration with local choral group Die Konzertisten. The first of these, collectively called “The Britten 100 Project”, consisted of his early works based on religious themes completed mostly in the decade between 1934 and 1943.

City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong © David McIntyre/Black Star
City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong
© David McIntyre/Black Star

Conductor for the evening Michael Ryan led the choral group to open the concert with the Te Deum in C, one of only two such canticle settings Britten composed, and Jubilate Deo. The Te Deum begins, as it ends, with a quiet and contemplative organ ostinato that ushers in a progressively more urgent choral section that culminates in statements by solo soprano which the chorus reinforces in short phrases. Die Konzertisten showed good mastery of the delicate tone required for the quiet passages, and exuded suitable energy as the work progressed, although the climax could have been more dramatic. Soloist Elisabeth Coupe used her angelic voice well, but fell short on diction and faltered somewhat in the low notes.

Recovering from measles upon his return from the United States in 1943, Britten wrote the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings with tenor Peter Pears and horn player Dennis Brain in mind. Their recording in 1944 with the composer conducting remains a standard. The subject of the six poems in the work is rest – of the temporary type, as in sleep; or of the permanent type, as in death.

The natural horn (without valves) sets the tones of the work with a calm and peaceful “Prologue”, played onstage, which is repeated in the “Epilogue”, played offstage. Sauntering strings accompanying long shadows cast by the setting sun in “Pastoral” described by Charles Cotton leads to “Nocturne”, a setting of Tennyson’s “Blow, Bugle, Blow”, which opens with impassioned strings and urgent horn figures that fade away with the words “dying, dying, dying”. The horn takes centre stage against sombre strings in “Elegy”, set to William Blake’s The Sick Rose. The anguished strings march to a heavy rhythm in “Dirge”, based on an anonymous poem Lyke Wake Dirge, as the horn growls boldly and the tenor tests his limit. A spritely hunting call opens “Hymn”, set to Ben Jonson’s Hymn to Diana, accompanied by pizzicato strings. John Keats’ To Sleep provides the text for “Sonnet”, in which the horn takes a rest and the remaining strings flex their muscles behind a sustained ending on two solo violins and viola.

Tenor Nathan Vale tackled the demanding material with verve and clarity, but with a more solid and earthy voice, found it hard to maintain consistent purity in tone. Although smooth and imaginative, Joe Kirtley’s horn playing showed strain and nervousness.

Britten composed The Company of Heaven in fulfilment of a commission by the BBC. Unlike similar programmes earlier, Britten’s was the first to give the selections of prose and verse “unity of thought and feeling”, in the words of Richard Ellis Roberts, who wrote the text for the work. Trevor Harvey, then sharing a flat with tenor Peter Pears, who was later to become Britten’s lifelong partner, conducted the debut broadcast on 29 September, 1937, the feast day of St Michael and all Angels.

The eleven numbers in the work are divided into three parts – “Before Creation”, “Angels in Scripture” and “Angels in Common Life and at Our Death” – and consist of quotes from scripture, poetry and speeches. Drawing from Theodosius, Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the first part is a portrayal of the chaos before creation and banishment of Lucifer, introduced on surging low strings and timpani. The organ and chorus play a bigger role in part two, citing Genesis, Kings and Revelation together with the poetry of Edmund Spencer and Christina Rossetti. In part three, various depictions of human encounter with angels conclude with a glorious finale “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” that leaves the audience humming Alleluya. The peaceful, slow strings that lead to a dialogue between solo soprano and chorus in “Heaven is Here” and the Mahlerian “Funeral March for a Boy” stand out as fine examples of mixing music with spoken words.

Lynn Yau and Jonathan Douglas delivered superb readings of the spoken material with crystal clear diction and rhythmic grace. The surprise was the chamber orchestra, who with a relatively small number of players delivered nuanced and powerful impact in support of the speakers and chorus.

Judging by their performance on Saturday, Die Konzertisten is destined to take Hong Kong on a wondrous journey discovering Britten’s choral works in the Britten 100 Project during the 2013 Arts Festival.