Benjamin Britten was very precise about what constituted the official canon of his works, but, in addition to his stipulated 95 opus numbers, he composed a huge amount of occasional music. One wonders how he would have felt about the continuous trickle from the Britten estate of juvenilia, unfinished and withdrawn works and music written for stage and broadcast, some of which have not always enhanced his posthumous reputation. Of the 80 or so radio scores from the 1930s and 40s, The Company of Heaven is one of the most substantial. Written in 1937 for a BBC Michaelmas broadcast, this cantata, lasting nearly an hour, was first revived in its entirety at the 1989 Aldeburgh Festival. Scored for chorus, two soloists and two narrators, it was composed immediately after the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge and contains the first music Britten wrote for Peter Pears, then a member of the BBC Singers.

Helen-Jane Howells © Paul Foster-Williams
Helen-Jane Howells
© Paul Foster-Williams

Artistic director of the Presteigne Festival George Vass has resourcefully programmed some of Britten’s less often-heard works as part of this year’s centenary, including giving The Company of Heaven a rare outing. But, even in this splendidly-prepared performance, it is easy to see why Britten put it back in the drawer after its first broadcast. Consisting of a series of texts chosen to mark Michaelmas, one can hear the young composer trying out ideas and techniques in preparation for later works, safe in the knowledge of the work’s transience. And, although there is much cunning thematic transformation bringing unity to the concept, the interpolated readings inevitably give the work a bitty quality that the rather bland musical invention cannot save.

For all these caveats though, it is a feather in Presteigne’s cap to have mounted this, especially with soloists as able as soprano Helen-Jane Howells and tenor Andrew Tortise, alongside narrators Eleanor Bron and Christopher Good. This year’s resident chorus, Sine Nomine International Touring Choir, provided a bright, focused sound, supported by crisp and taut playing from the strings of the Festival Orchestra under George Vass.

Held in the town Parish church of St Andrew’s, this was a vintage Presteigne evening also featuring Sibelius’s too-rarely heard reworking of his early Rakastava for strings and Arvo Pärt’s ubiquitous Fratres. The most satisfying music in the concert though was Gabriel Jackson’s Doonies Hill Antiphon. Now 51, Jackson is one of the festival’s featured composers. Until recently Associate Composer to the BBC Singers, he is often regarded as a choral composer, but Jackson has a much wider range, of which Presteigne has been reminding us, with performances of his first string quartet, his Piano Concerto and the present work for string orchestra.

Taking as its model the florid long-limbed choral works of early 16th-century England, Doonies Hill Antiphon was a glorious mix of what the composer describes as, “a mosaic of folk-fiddling filigree, plaintive soliloquies, ecstatically entwined cellos, sonorous polyphony”. The result is a bold formal design allied to much memorable invention; I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t establish itself as a contemporary string mainstay in years to come.

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