This was a recreation of a Proms concert that Benjamin Britten conducted in 1963, but with a contemporary twist. The original concert opened with Britten’s own respectful version of Purcell’s Chacony in G minor but, on this occasion, we heard the world premiere of a BBC commission: Joby Talbot’s take on the same piece, an evocative and atmospheric essay in orchestral colour set within a halo of bell sounds.

© BBC / Chris Christodoulou
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou

The rest of the first half was a prophetic bit of concert programming at the end of a week when England was riven by appalling street riots, violence and looting. I found it hard to get these incidents out of my mind during the following two works - Britten’s retelling of the Good Samaritan story in Cantata misericordium and his Sinfonia da Requiem.

The Cantata misericordium was written in 1963 to celebrate the centenary of the Red Cross. It opens with the bleak sound of a string quartet before the chorus enters with the almost pleading intonation, Beati misericordes, which is then extended into a slow triple-time dance accompanied by plucked strings and piano. One of many moving musical moments comes with the little dueted response by the two protagonists (Alan Oke, tenor and, notably, Leigh Melrose, baritone) to the statement “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” as they sing “But who is my neighbour?” – a question they answer at the end of the work as the dance recurs to the words “Go and do likewise”. As the traveller is robbed and left half dead, the choir adds their soto voce commentary as first a priest and then a Levite pass by before the Samaritan eventually comes to the Traveller’s aid.

The Sinfonia da Requiem is one of the most unlikely pairings of commission and composition ever. It was commissioned in 1939 at the request of the expansively militaristic Japanese government for their celebrations of the 2,600th anniversary of the Empire. They later rejected it as being too Christian. It is dedicated to the memory of his parents and dramatically expresses Britten’s anti-war convictions – “I’m making it as anti-war as possible”. Although it can easily be read as a poke in Japan’s eye, Britten is likely (as Sara Mohr-Pietsch pointed out in her erudite and friendly pre-concert live broadcast talk) to have written this piece whatever the commission. The ominous thuds of the opening ‘slow marching lament’ (Lacrymosa) start a slowly unfolding musical texture of unremitting tension, built on a series of tiny motifs. After an emotive climax, the scherzo-like Dies Irae graphically depicts an ultimately destructive dance of death, the aftermath of which is reflected in the concluding slow movement, Requiem aeturnam.

The Spring Symphony (1949) managed to re-focus my mind. As with the Sinfonia da Requiem, the opening is dark and mysterious, reflecting the pleas of the chorus for spring to arrive and for the fair sun to ‘Shine out’ – a fine example of Britten’s talent for writing for voices (notably in the passage set to the words “Crookt age on three knees creeps the street”) and his use of restrained but imaginative orchestral textures. A further 12 poems are packaged into a fragmented, but notionally four movement work showing scant regard to symphonic form. Spenser’s ‘The merry cuckoo” has the tenor soloist (the excellent Alan Oke) battling againt three stuttering trumpets, while the rocking dance of ‘Spring, the sweet spring’ has all three soloists singing the bird’s merry lay “Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!”. A lusty boys choir gave us ‘The Driving Boy’ before they whistle an accompaniment to the soprano soloist. Christine Rice managed to tone down her excessive vibrato just a tad for Britten’s selection of verses from WH Auden’s “vision of agape” - ‘Out on the lawn I lie in bed’ with its wordless chorus and sparky woodwind background, with a juddering flute reflecting Auden’s contemplation on ‘the tyrannies of love’ and Britten’s pacifist beliefs musically expressed in the line “Where Poland draws her Eastern bow, what violence is done;”. The rumbustuous finale is set to ‘London, to thee I do present’, from ‘The Knight of the Burning Pestle’, complete with several appearances of a cow horn. It builds to a glorious finale when the boys’ choir and brass crown the orchestra and choir with ‘Sumer is icumen in’.

No fewer than two of the original four soloists and the conductor had to be replaced at short notice. Mark Wigglesworth is to be congratulated for conducting this complex programme with such surety. As with the other ‘Choral Sunday’s, there was a chance for audience members to get to know the work (and to realise how deceptively tricky Britten’s music is to sing) at the early afternoon Proms Plus Sing, led on this occasion by the energetic Anna Flannagan.