The high quality of Stephen Layton and his ensemble Polyphony returned after nearly three years to the NTR Zaterdagmatinee at the Concertgebouw. The unexpected combination in the programme resulted in the radical contrast of Arvo Pärt’s heavenly and Joseph Haydn’s earthly music. The Britten Sinfonia preceded the works with a commendable, though quite stiff, performance of Shostakovich. Layton demonstrated that Polyphony belongs to the best of British choirs, resulting in hypnotic moments during Pärt and, featuring a foursome of excellent British soloists, a tremendous rendition of Haydn’s Missa in Augustii.

Stephen Layton © Keith Saunders
Stephen Layton
© Keith Saunders

The Britten Sinfonia opened with Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony Op.110a based on his String Quartet no. 8 in C minor. During a project in Germany, Shostakovich witnessed the horrifying destruction of Dresden. Within a few days he channelled his experience in the quartet, claiming it one of his most personal works. Besides incorporating his monogram motif DSCH (from the German musical notation of “D, E flat, C, B”), throughout the piece, he also quotes from many of his other works, intensifying the personal nature of the piece. Later in a letter, he wished this piece to be played at his funeral.  

After opening the Largo at a steady tempo, concertmaster Jacqueline Shave demonstrated her skills in her violin solos, establishing the mood of Shostakovich's elegiac lament. The abrupt change to Allegro molto in the second movement allowed the ensemble to provide exciting energy. The shrill Allegretto arrived with surprising playfulness. In the penultimate Largo, the richness of the strings created an ominous atmosphere. Caroline Dearnley’s cello passages in the final movement brought out the nocturnal colours with which the piece closes. While the slow moving Largo movements worked well with Shave’s restrained tempo, Shostakovich shrilling urgency was missing in the two fast movements.

For Arvo Pärt’s Berlin Mass, Polyphony and Layton joined the Britten Sinfonia on stage. At times trance-inducing, it’s a challenge for the conductor to sustain the listeners’ interest. Though frequently achieving hypnotic effects, Layton could not sustain the focus of this listener consistently. It was remarkable how long the piece felt for just those 20 minutes. Often called minimalist, Pärt’s music lacks the rhythmic driving force of his contemporaries Glass or Adams, and Layton could not overcome this lack of energy entirely. 

Originally written for four voices and organ, Pärt later adapted the Berlin Mass for choir and string orchestra. His mystical tintinnabuli style, where sections sing seperate notes from triad chords, appeared in the Kyrie, Gloria and Alleluias, echoing the sound of church bells that contribute to Pärt’s trademark atmosphere. Layton opened the Kyrie with his choir in stately fashion, sad but peaceful. The choir’s exquisite high notes contrasted with humming low notes of the strings. After opening with serenity, Layton let the choir erupt into the Gloria. In the final in gloria Dei Patris he impressed with the powerful volume his relatively small choir achieved in the Great Hall. In the Veni sancte spiritus and Credo, Pärt leaves his tintinnabuli temporarily behind, only to re-enlist it for the Sanctus. The serene momentum continued into the Agnus Dei, as Pärt ended the journey with the voices in intervals of perfect fourths and perfect fifths. The demure ending, with its lack of theatrics, was followed by a hesitant applause.

After the break, the music moved from Eastern Europe to Western Europe, with an exhilarating performance of Haydn’s Missa in augustii ‘Nelson’. Written in 1798, during the French-Austrian war, the work gained its subtitle after the Admiral in question, who defeated the French at a battle concurrent with the première of the piece in Vienna. It begins in a threatening tone, offers meditative parts, and ends in playful joy. The soloists sat in front of the strings, followed by the choir, while Layton placed the three trumpets behind the timpani in front of the organ. Woodwinds were absent.

The furious temperament of Haydn’s piece provided a much-needed jolt of energy after Pärt’s serenity. The Mass sounds more like a Requiem, and Mozart came to mind many times, especially during the tumultuous opening Kyrie with its bellicose drumrolls. For the second part, Layton led his soloists in quick tempo along the super-charged Gloria. The Qui tollis resulted in powerful moments from organ and strings. Soprano Katherine Watson delighted with Quoniam tu solus. Her voice continued to move during her aria in the Credo. Layton permitted his choir some leeway during the Sanctus, as it bursts with joy in Hosanna in excelsis. Mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately emerged in a tender back and forth with Watson during the opening of the Agnus Dei. In the finale, Dona nobis pacem, the blending of voices led to many incidents of goosebumps: tenor Andrew Tortise exhibited heartfelt warmth, while baritone Derek Walton demonstrated his mighty vocal depth. Layton rewarded his audience with a beautifully transparent Pärt encore.