Prom 50: CLS/Layton – review

Royal Albert Hall, London

Founded by the late Richard Hickox, the City of London Sinfonia reaches its 40th anniversary this year. One of the celebratory projects initiated by Hickox, who died suddenly in 2008, was a new work by Colin Matthews. In the event, it fell to Stephen Layton – his successor as the orchestra's artistic director – to realise the piece at this Prom.

No Man's Land is a memorial to the losses of the first world war, of which Matthews's grandfather was a casualty. It sets a poetic sequence by Christopher Reid, in which two skeletons, hanging on the wire between the opposing armies, converse and ponder their experiences. One is an officer, Captain Slack, here sung with aristocratic poise by tenor Ian Bostridge; baritone Roderick Williams took the more demotic part of Sergeant Gifford.

Reid creates a reflective, darkly humorous and occasionally shocking mini-drama out of this situation, yet the result feels understated, as well as setting well to music. Matthews has provided a strikingly atmospheric score, regularly drawing on the idioms (and sometimes the actual recordings) of marches and sentimental songs of the period in an approach that recalls Mahler's use of similar material to equally ironic effect. The final impression is of a subject drawing something powerfully distinctive from Matthews in its alternation of detached emotional observation and compassion.

Its impact overshadowed the positive impression created by the spirited account of Britten's Frank Bridge Variations that preceded it; though the sheer dramatic punchiness of Layton's choir Polyphony, and an eloquent quartet of soloists – Bostridge again, plus soprano Emma Bell, mezzo Renata Pokupić and baritone Henk Neven – ensured that Mozart's Requiem, in the standard completion by his musical assistant Süssmayr, made its proper mark in the second half.

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George Hall

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