Britten at the Proms – A boy was born


BBC Singers
(c) Sophie Laslett

In an interesting juxtaposition the BBC reminded us that Benjamin Britten’s is not the only centennial birthday worthy of celebration this year. George Lloyd, too, was born in 1913, and he lived to the age of 85. The Requiem, receiving its London premiere on this occasion, was his last published work.

It was a clever move to pair the last work of a dying man with the prodigious work of a young composer on the verge of greatness, as the 19-year old Britten was in 1932. A Boy Was Born remains one of his very finest choral works but it is still seldom performed. As the conductor David Hill explained this is due almost entirely to its technical demands, as well as the work’s specification for a choir of treble voices along with a more conventional four part choir.

Here the Temple Church Choir trebles united with the BBC Singers for a very special performance. David Hill tended towards tempos on the slow side – the entire performance lasting just over half an hour – but crucially he had the singers to sustain this approach. A quiet start grew into the first exultant ‘Alleluyas’, and then it was on to the lucidity of the trebles in Lullay their clear tones mixing beautifully with the fuller sound of the BBC Singers.

The third of Britten’s variations, Jesu, as Thou art our Saviour, cut through the heart with its familiar icy beauty, and Luke McWatters‘ treble solo hitting the high notes without fail. The setting of In the bleak midwinter continued with a slower tempo but Hill kept the music exquisitely poised. There was a real sense of expectation in the first calls of ‘Wassail!’ as the tricky finale began, but despite the congested writing in this most difficult of Britten’s choral utterances there was still impressive clarity, before a terrific, held finish.

It goes without saying to note that Britten and George Lloyd are two very different musical personalities. Lloyd’s music is more obviously conservative, adhering more to his love of 19th century music, but on the evidence of his Requiem he clearly knew a thing or two about composing for choir. The work was completed in June 1998, just three weeks before its composer’s passing. It addresses death with serenity, taking a very different but no less valid approach to Britten’s War Requiem. Crucially there is no Libera me, enabling Lloyd to end on a positive.

The overall language sits closer to the world of Stainer’s Crucifixion, a parallel made more obvious by the use of organ as continuo – and Greg Morris helped here with some sensitive choices of registration. Lloyd uses a countertenor soloist but writes lower in the range, a technique that brought an unusual but very expressive sonority from Iestyn Davies, clear and relatively vibrato-free.

The piece opened with a heartfelt Meditation on a plainsong-influenced melody in the purest F major, setting the tone. The Dies irae began with a flourish from the organ, and kept a largely positive disposition through to an assertive and bold statement of the Dies irae chant itself. After a rocking motion for the Sanctus theme we ended back in the tranquil home key for the closing Lux Aeterna.

It is very easy to criticize works from a single listen but the Requiem had music of merit once the ear had adjusted to its more conservative language. Only in parts of the longer movements were there were moments where the intensity lagged. It did however make me think the piece might be more effective in the context of a church service.

The Proms has done a very good job of reminding us that Britten’s is not the only centenary falling this year, and that it is important to place him in the context of his many and varied compatriots and contemporaries. Ultimately on this occasion his was the more compressed and ultimately more expressive approach, the piece that lingered longer in the memory.

You can listen to the Temple Church Choir and the BBC Singers, conducted by David Hill, performing A boy was born and the George Lloyd Requiem on the BBC iPlayer.

Meanwhile the George Lloyd Society can be accessed by clicking here

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