Proms Diary: Britten and George Lloyd performed by the BBC Singers

Daniel Jaffé heads to a late-night Prom bringing together music of birth and death

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Tuesday evening was an opportunity to compare choral works by two English composers whose centenaries fall this year, though it was a curious combination: A Boy was Born, an a cappella work written by a prodigiously gifted 19-year-old, against a Requiem, the final work by an 85-year-old composer who never quite got the fame he felt he deserved.

It seems too neat a coincidence that Britten’s A Boy was Born was premiered on the very day that England’s great Edwardian composer, Edward Elgar, died. ‘The King of English music has died! Long live the King of English music!’ one might almost have said. Indeed, Britten’s a cappella choral variations deeply impressed Vaughan Williams, who supported Britten’s career even in the face of derision of the orchestral players who later had to premiere the distinctly weird Our Hunting Fathers. And even Gustav Holst’s daughter, Imogen, became a true believer, dedicating to Britten a book on her father’s music in which she disavowed Gustav’s alleged compositional shortcomings (‘a British Empire brand of descending bass in a fat, self-satisfied three-in-a-bar, while a più mosso guiltily tries to cover up the poverty of musical thought’) implicitly in the wake of Britten’s genius.

Still, one can’t blame Britten for such over-zealous championship. A Boy was Born remains a stunningly impressive and moving achievement even before one considers Britten was only 19 when he composed it.

Assured in its mixture of economy (the haunting treble solo, sung by Luke McWatters, rising above the adult choir in ‘Jesu, as Thou art Our Saviour’) and boldly daring effects in the Finale ‘Noel!’, it was revealed in nearly full glory by the BBC Singers with the Temple Church Choir directed by David Hill. Passages which demanded and received gutsy singing revealed their kinship with much later choral works by Giles Swayne (for instance, the Magnificat of 1982), while others – such as the piercing dissonances of ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’ – suggested Maxwell Davies. I only wished that both choirs (perhaps particularly the Temple Church Choir) could have relished the music more, given a bit more warmth, perhaps, to balance the bite of the choral virtuosity. Still, the final recollection of themes from the preceding variations and the choral apotheosis was uplifting and warmly applauded.

Given the technical challenges of A Boy was Born, it is not surprising (though it is a pity) that it is not so well-known and celebrated as A Ceremony of Carols. Even less often performed is George Lloyd’s Requiem, dedicated to Diana, Princess of Wales who had died in the year he started composing it.

For the choir it contained none of the challenges offered by the Britten, offering instead mostly plainchant-derived melodies or chromatically distorted ‘big tunes’. There were also occasional excursions into barber-shop harmonies in, for instance, ‘Dies irae (2)’, and a rather tedious cod-blues style ‘Ingemisco’ sung by countertenor Iestyn Davies. Quite why George Lloyd requested a countertenor is not clear, since the tessitura of that part was often well within the range of a baritone: the programme note suggested that Lloyd, by choosing countertenor rather than a contralto, was rejecting ‘fullness and vibrato in favour of still and more focused delivery’ – a perhaps rather Freudian rejection since Lloyd’s stake as a composer was made in opera (Iernin, anyone?), a genre in which Britten triumphed in 1945. This evening, once again, Lloyd was hopelessly overshadowed – by half-way through the Requiem, one could see people quietly leaving their seats for the exit, a process which continued even minutes before the work reached its end.