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Music review: the Sinfonia chamber orchestra

25 October 2019

Roderic Dunnett hears an orchestra on tour


Bradford Cathedral

Bradford Cathedral

ASCENDING the stone-sided steps to Bradford Cathedral reminded me of mounting the castle keep at Falaise, or Rochester. It is a beautifully atmospheric approach to what, as St Peter’s Church, became the city’s cathedral in 1919, refounded after a history dating back to the eighth century.

In 1919, Bradford sent its bells, now the Memorial Bells, for recasting, in tribute to the fallen of the Great War. Ten in number, they returned for rehanging in 1921. They, like the carved pulpit, are one of the cathedral’s most glorious acquisitions.

To this northern cathedral — together with Liverpool and Sheffield — the 40-plus City of London Sinfonia came this month. The Sinfonia is a chamber orchestra founded by the late Richard Hickox (1948-2008), whose father was Vicar of Wooburn, near High Wycombe. Its boldly modern part-choral programme has toured nine cathedrals, as far south-west as Truro and Exeter (superb cathedral choirs both), and to Wales (the regenerated forces of Llandaff Cathedral). The Truro concert was recorded for broadcast on Radio 3 next Tuesday at 7.30 p.m.

The series, “The Fruit of Silence”, has been attracting large audiences; Lichfield Cathedral was the last venue on Wednesday. At each, the orchestra has drawn in the cathedral choir to play its part in the (mainly) choral items.

It has proved of great value for each choir to perform alongside one of the country’s indubitably great orchestras. At Bradford, the men and young choristers (boys and girls) did not let it down. They shone brightly in richly inspiring music by Dobrinka Tabakova (born in 1980 at Plovdiv, in Bulgaria), the Latvian Peteris Vasks (born 1946), and the immensely talented Matthew Martin, who composed the anthem for Westminster Abbey’s 750th-anniversary service last week, and is one of British sacred choral music’s brightest stars.

The concert was named after Vasks’s The Fruit of Silence, which was heard in both its piano-quintet version and its preceding setting for choir and piano. The compact instrumental parts of this work and Arvo Pärt’s Summa enabled the string talents of this fine orchestra to shine through. So did Tabakova’s Organum Light, based on a medieval chant and drawing on the medieval musical practice of accompanying a plainsong line a fifth above (or below).

The works that gave special satisfaction were when the cathedral choir was invoked to provide choral lines of intense, shimmering beauty. In Bradford, it was utterly magnificant. The celebrated 1981 Funeral Ikos by the late Sir John Tavener was given a beautiful, near-perfect rendering. Why the 16th-century John Taverner’s best-known a cappella motet Dum Transisset Sabbatum (most likely 1520s) was chosen for the launch was not explained (the printed programme seemed a shambles); but it is a test for any choir. Bradford — finely disciplined and ably rehearsed — captured not just the notes, but the emotion and narrative depth of this Henrician masterpiece.

More apt was their tight, precise reading of Lighten our darkness, a work already in the choir’s extensive evensong repertoire, by Ed Jones, a former associate organist of the cathedral. But the highlights of this intensely moving concert, for me, were the two substantial final works: Vasks’s The Fruit of Silence, in its choral manifestation, and Tabakova’s wonderful Centuries of Meditations, in which she draws on 14 passages from the 17th-century English clergyman and mystic Thomas Traherne (ten from his collection Centuries).

Each work relies on long, static held strings, over which, delectably, others —notably harp (Elizabeth Bass) — dance and decorate. These strings produce a gorgeous, unified sound, strong and assertive, and yet by turns plangent and expressive. The boy soloist in (I think) the Vasks was superlative: an adjective that could well apply to the whole occasion.

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