Imagine the first meeting between two young lovers, a couple who will eventually marry. As they walk through a forest in the moonlight, the girl reveals to her new friend that she is pregnant by another man. How would you react in this situation? In 1899, Schoenberg had just met the woman that he would marry, so was naturally drawn to a poem on this theme, turning it into his tone poem, Transfigured Night. It was originally written for string sextet but later arranged for string orchestra – the form presented by Southern Sinfonia in their impressive concert in the Douai Abbey Church. The music reflects the initial despair of the girl and the gradual understanding and acceptance of the young man in a powerful example of Schönburg’s early expressionistic style – a style that, in comparison with many of his latter works, could be referred to as “Schönburg Lite”.

Douai Abbey
Douai Abbey

Amazingly, this was the oldest of the three works presented in this inventive bit of programme planning by the Newbury based Southern Sinfonia and their distinguished Music Director and conductor, David Hill, otherwise of the BBC Singers and the Bach Choir. The evening had started with John Tavener’s landmark work, The Protecting Veil, inspired by the Orthodox Feast of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God, and an instant hit after its premiere at The Proms in 1989. Cellist Timothy Gill was a excellent interpreter of the soaring musical lines, representing both the Mother of God (notably in the extended solo Lament) and the Protecting Veil itself in the opening and closing passages. The orchestral players grasped the complexities of the work with aplomb, ranging from almost inaudible background shimmers to the recurring jagged and percussive interjections.

The remaining work was Arvo Pärt’s intensely moving Cantus in Memorium Benjamin Britten, a work where the complex underlying musical structure is subsumed into a work of unearthly beauty. Essentially the piece is made up of a combination of descending A minor scales, with each entry played at half the speed of its predecessor until, one by one, they settle on the note C. The work opens with three notated beats of silence broken by three repetitions of a three-note motif on a tubular bell, a sound the recurs throughout the work. One striking aural feature that was very noticeable in the expansive acoustic of the Douai Abbey church is that the tubular bell (which is the only sound left resonating at the close of the piece) includes a prominent major third in its harmonic structure, in sharp contrast to the otherwise totally minor-key mood of the string orchestra, producing a concluding shaft of light.

The Southern Sinfonia’s professional strings players were very impressive in a programme that cannot have been easy for them. David Hill conducted this tricky programme with very evident involvement. But honours must also go to the impressively sizeable audience – not what one might expect for such a programme. The Southern Sinfonia clearly have a very strong following, as well they might, based on this showing. Douai Abbey, just north of the A4, midway between Reading and Newbury, is an impressive concert venue. Architecturally it is an fascinating and imposing amalgam of unfinished early 20th-century Gothic completed by an award-winning late 20th century building.