With his centenary year fast approaching, Saturday night’s concert was a celebration of all things Britten. The festivities have certainly begun in style in Oxford, with Nicholas Cleobury leading the Oxford Bach Choir, the English Chamber Orchestra and soprano Elizabeth Atherton in some truly outstanding music-making. Mixing works by Britten himself with those by composers who influenced him, the performances of the majority of the pieces were dynamic and committed, and certainly made for a memorable evening.

The English Chamber Orchestra with Nicholas Cleobury at the Sheldonian Theatre © Graham Chamberlain
The English Chamber Orchestra with Nicholas Cleobury at the Sheldonian Theatre
© Graham Chamberlain

The centrepiece of the programme was surely the première of Britten’s Two Psalms. Written in 1931, when Britten was in his late teens, these settings of Psalms 130 and 150 were never performed (despite Vaughan Williams’ attempt to see the work performed at the Three Choirs Festival). These early works already show the hallmarks of the composer’s style. After a beginning reminiscent of Bridge (Britten’s teacher), the setting of Psalm 130 continues with a spun-out string figure comprised of snippets of scales connected by leaps. This idea underpins the rest of the setting in various guises: it infiltrates the wind section, and the chorus lengthens the note values in their first entry. The entry of the soprano prompts Britten to leave behind the solemn mood of the beginning (marked by the lugubrious tones of the cor anglais) in favour of a more extroverted air. An energetic contrapuntal section culminates in a fugue, before the setting closes with a supplicatory glow.

Although the 160-strong Oxford Bach Choir seemed less than comfortable with the constantly shifts of time signature (requiring greater continuity between phrases), the setting of Psalm 150 saw them return to their confident selves. The opening string fireworks establish the four-note motif which forms the basis of the ensuing sections. Britten retreats into a more withdrawn section with clarinet melody before displaying his aptitude for a wide palette of orchestral sonorities, concluding with an exuberant flourish. This second psalm was given a committed performance, and the Two Psalms will surely be heard again before the end of the anniversary year.

The violent explosions of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture (which opened the programme) were measured by Nicholas Cleobury to great effect, creating a simmering tension which emphasised the volatility of Beethoven’s writing. The players of the English Chamber Orchestra interacted with great perception, constantly adjusting their own line and showing great awareness of the other parts. This sensitivity was echoed in Cleobury’s nuances of tempo, and his interpretation was underpinned by a sense of urgency.

Although the Beethoven set a high bar, it was exceeded by Britten’s rarely performed Ballad of Heroes. After the initial fierce brass fanfares, Cleobury set a gently moving tempo for the elegiac melody. The Oxford Bach Choir proved that they were capable of the quiet end of the dynamic spectrum (although their magnitude showed in the hissing vowels which interfered in their choir’s hushed monotone in the opening movement). The danse macabre saw the careful articulation of the ostinato-based accompaniments continue, with the athletic strings insistent in their fatalistic driving rhythms. The third movement allowed soprano Elizabeth Atherton to demonstrate her control over a wide range. Cleobury chose not to luxuriate in Britten’s blissful chorale, instead maintaining a steady tempo. Not until the last of the fanfares had died away was the intensity of his vision relaxed.
More Britten opened the second half. The Building of the House overture once again showcased the agility of the strings, with bustling passagework underpinning the choir’s legato declamation of a psalm paraphrase. Their chords were well voiced, and Cleobury maintained this vigour right until the effusive end.

Britten’s arrangement of Mahler’s What the Wild Flowers Tell Me allowed the ECO to demonstrate their sensitivity to textural balance once more, with the constant changes of instrumental combination all well blended. Cleobury’s fleet-footed interpretation brought out the dance-like quality of the inner section, withholding Mahler’s characteristic lushness of sound for choice parts. A sense of line was sustained throughout, preventing the cantabile melodies from lingering nostalgia.

Poulenc’s Gloria was the final piece on the programme, but it fell short of the high standard of the rest of the evening. The ECO elucidated the playful side to the grandeur of the opening movement, although the choir didn’t seem to match their punchy rhythms. The choir needed more definition in the first movement, and the dialogue in the Laudamus te failed to capture Poulenc’s mischievousness. Elizabeth Atherton’s solo in the fifth movement was particularly brilliant, utilising her head-voice effectively to evoke a sense of nostalgia. The final movement saw a return to tongue-in-cheek spikiness, although a flat entry by the choir slightly undermined the piece near its end.

With the exception of the Poulenc, the concert was gripping and truly unforgettable. With such advocates, Britten’s legacy will undoubtedly shine bright in his centenary year.