The City of London Sinfonia opened its season with the first of a series of concerts exploring Shakespeare’s influence on music. The concerts are designed to reunite the source material with the music, with excerpts from the play in question performed by actors Richard Hope and Emma Pallant in synchronisation with the score.

Stephen Layton © Keith Saunders
Stephen Layton
© Keith Saunders

Wednesday’s concert focused on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The atmospheric setting of Southwark Cathedral, the Bard’s parish church, proved effective for the second half of the concert, but it was an acoustically challenging venue in which to perform the first piece – Purcell’s Fairy Queen Suite. The suite is taken from the eponymous opera which is loosely based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, yet surprisingly with a more complicated story and extra characters thrown in. The suite was played solely by the string section which didn’t quite manage to compensate for the structure of the building and thus the intricate, contrapuntal sections sounded blurred. The effect of a relatively large string section playing without a harpsichord created an inauthentic sound that is relatively uncommon in Baroque performance these days. A smaller, tighter ensemble would have produced a more engaging effect.

The remainder of the first half showcased some rarer English vocal settings of Shakespeare’s texts. First, Ralph Vaughan Williams Three Shakespeare Songs for unaccompanied choir, written in 1951 during a creative Indian summer that saw the production of an incredible volume of work. Originally composed to test the muscle of entrants in a national choir competition, they present considerable technical challenges and recall the sound world of his Symphony no. 6. The harmonies are close, sometimes stark with a dissonance distant from his earlier works. The Holst Singers, the choir for the evening, gave an accomplished performance, particularly in the final piece Over Hill, Over Dale, where the melodic line floated gracefully over an ever-moving, nattering accompaniment in the tenor and basses.

Finzi’s song cycle Let us Garlands Bring followed, performed by baritone Neal Davies in an arrangement for string orchestra. A series of five songs, dedicated to Vaughan Williams, and imbued with the wistful and sometimes melancholic folk-inspired writing that is typical of Finzi. Davies gave a passionate performance although, at times, I felt that the music called for a more delicate approach. The extremes in dynamics jarred with both the pastoral musical language and the text.

The world première of 21 year old British composer Owain Park’s song cycle Shakespeare Songs of Night-Time closed the first half. The work comprised of six settings for unaccompanied choir linked with the recurring refrain “Come, gentle night, come, loving black-brow’d night”. This was a sophisticated and immediately engaging piece that once again the Holst Singers excelled in, producing a clean, rich and disciplined sound. The harmonic language was not far removed from the earlier Vaughan Williams work yet it also sounded authentic and relevant. Park’s word-setting was particularly impressive, and a key idea seemed to be the juxtaposition of rhythms and timbres – spiky phrases in the tenor and bass lines were frequently set against smoother dream-like passages in the sopranos and altos to great effect.

The second half saw actors Richard Hope and Emma Pallant join the Sinfonia and a female chorus to perform excerpts from Shakespeare’s play along Mendelssohn’s much-loved music, originally developed in the 1830s from the prodigious overture he completed at the age of 17. Mendelssohn’s score, nearly always heard abstracted from the play in a concert hall, has always done a marvellous job of conjuring the spirit of its source material. The story is so ubiquitous that the musical cues are easy to read and appreciate. That said, reintroducing short extracts from the play at relevant points was both enlightening and charming. Both Richard Hope and Emma Pallant inhabited the vast space marvellously and managed to make these short extracts immediately engaging. The volume of text was very well-judged with just a handful of short scenes forming a satisfying insight into how the first performance of this work might have sounded. The orchestral playing, under the baton of Stephen Layton, was richly detailed and performed in perfect synchronicity with the acting. The one thing that could have improved the performance was if it had actually taken place on a beautiful midsummer’s evening instead of, somewhat incongruously, a blustery autumn night. However, despite the weather, this was an intelligently-constructed concert that beautifully captured the spirit of Shakespeare’s evergreen play.