BBC Singers/London Sinfonietta/Atherton – review

Cadogan Hall, London

There's plenty of contemporary music in the short series of Saturday Proms matinees, and the programme shared by the BBC Singers and London Sinfonietta and conducted by David Atherton, included both UK and world premieres. There was a welcome revival too for Peter Maxwell Davies's Il Rozzo Martello, an intricate, unaccompanied choral setting of Michelangelo, which he composed for the BBC Singers 14 years ago.

The piano concerto Champ-Contrechamp, by the Greek-born, French-based Georges Aperghis was receiving its first performance, with Nicolas Hodges as soloist. The title comes from cinematography; in Aperghis's single-movement work it refers to the ever-changing complementary relationships between the piano and the ensemble, which includes a second piano shadowing and fleshing out the busy figuration of the soloist. Hyperactive yet strangely restrained, it's deft but rather insubstantial.

Harrison Birtwistle's dramatic cantata Angel-Fighter, first performed at the Leipzig Bach festival last year, is his third recent work to be based on biblical subject matter. This time it's the story from Genesis of Jacob wrestling with an Angel, though once again it's the dramatic content rather than its religious significance that interested Birtwistle and his librettist Stephen Plaice. The drama is vivid and economical with a tenor (Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts, excellent) taking the role of Jacob, and a counter-tenor (Andrew Watts, ditto) as the Angel, who sings partly in Enochian, the 16th-century angelic language supposedly communicated to John Dee. The choir comments, rather in the style of the turba choruses in Bach's passions.

There are other echoes of Bach, too, especially in the Angel's aria with cor anglais and harp obbligatos, and the dramatic pacing is perfectly judged, right up to the climax when the angel finally agrees to bless Jacob, and a trumpet sounds from behind the audience, summoning him back to heaven. It's a hauntingly powerful ending.

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Andrew Clements

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