James McCarthy, Codebreaker: world premiere, Barbican Hall

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Staff writer Rosie Pentreath reports from the world premiere of an oratorio based on the life of British scientist Alan Turing

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James McCarthy, Codebreaker: world premiere, Barbican Hall

‘Are you able to enjoy a first performance or do you squirm in your seat?' asks director David Temple at the pre-concert talk to the world premiere of Codebreaker. ‘It depends how good the performers are...', McCarthy replies, with laughter from the audience.

But Codebreaker was in safe hands with the Hertfordshire Chorus and the London Orchestra da Camera on Saturday – Temple needn’t have asked. McCarthy’s 55-minute oratorio, which commemorates the life of scientist Alan Turing, is a deeply moving work that showcases the composer’s ability to craft sumptuous melodies and build powerful climaxes with a full chorus and orchestra.

McCarthy tackles a visceral and heartbreaking subject. The father of computer science, Alan Turing worked at Bletchley Park during World War Two where he deciphered the German Enigma code, arguably the most significant contribution to the British war effort made by any individual. Just 14 years after he was first employed by the government, Turing was prosecuted for homosexuality and subject to chemical castration. He committed suicide two years later.

‘In Codebreaker I have focused on three key moments in Turning’s life, namely: falling in love with [Christopher] Morcom, the war and his final hours,’ explains McCarthy in his brilliant programme notes. ‘The very first words ('We shall be happy') come from the final line of the piece, making Codebreaker circular.’

The oratorio’s text is taken from poems by Wilfred Owen, Sara Teasdale, Oscar Wilde, Edward Thomas and Robert Burns, as well as the letters of Sara Turing, Alan’s mother. They make for a moving and personal journey through Turing’s life.

'I want the audience in this to feel like they have been sitting across the table from Alan Turing and they've shared a cup of tea with him, and have spoken about his hopes and his fears and what he loves,' explains McCarthy.

The work opens with a rousing chorus, before the choir quotes from a postcard written by Alan Turing himself when he was at Cambridge University. Hertfordshire was a strong and unified force here, demonstrating rhythmic precision and some nuanced phrasing.

The setting of Gordon Brown’s belated apology for Her Majesty’s Government’s treatment of Alan Turing (the government officially apologised in 2009 – 55 years after the scientist's death) is particularly affecting, as is the War Interlude, which begins with Neville Chamberlain’s announcement of World War Two made on 3 September 1939.

It’s the passage that sets Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis that really hits home: ‘I am advised to try and forget it all. That would be fatal. I would be haunted by a sense of disgrace ... To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development ... suffering is one very long moment.’ Alan Turing was sentenced for his homosexuality in 1952 and rather than deny the charges, accepted the punishment that led to his demise.

Rhythms derived from the Enigma machine and the British code-breaking device Bombe are incorporated cleverly into the music and McCarthy's emotive melodies over these make a real impact.

The oratorio announces Turing’s death with a heart-wrenching climax of screaming wind and brass textures and the chorus at full volume. The melodies that set Thomas’s Lights Out are particularly moving and the work ends with striking use of a bell chime (it rather appropriately recalled Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten).

The premiere ended with a deserved standing ovation from an audience clearly very moved.

Also on the programme was Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (the orchestra gave this a rather dry treatment that didn’t seem to really relish that repeated Hebrides motif that we all know and love); Beethoven’s Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt, which showcased Hertfordshire Chorus’s full sound and some glittering accompaniment passages from the orchestra, and Toward the Unknown Region by Vaughan Williams

With a well-curated programme that paid dignified respect to a man who, in McCarthy’s words ‘was damaged by the fact that he existed in the wrong time’, this was a powerful concert that will stay with me for quite some time.

Cover art: Andy Potts