Cadogan Hall, London
Stephen Layton's first London concert as principal conductor of the City of London Sinfonia focused on music from the UK and the Baltic states; it included a recent (2006) guitar concerto by the 33-year-old Latvian Eriks Esenvalds, whose choral music Layton has already championed in the UK. Songs of Silence consists of four movements framed and divided by orchestral interludes. In each of these the accompaniment (for strings alone) consists largely of slow chords, some simple, some oblique, giving the whole work a sense of stasis rarely enhanced by motion. The solo writing is also reflective, allowing the piece a limited sense of trajectory and little dynamic impulse. Within its atmospheric limitations, the result is pleasant if unmemorable. Even the luminous tone provided by guitarist Craig Ogden, which scarcely needed the discreet amplification used in this performance, could not enliven it.
The rest of the programme seemed bitty, an impression not quite disguised by running three shorter works – Britten's A Hymn to the Virgin and Chorale, separated by Arvo Pärt's Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten – together. In the Britten pieces, Layton's confidence with the fine Holst Singers in front of him, and their perfected variety of tone and balance, proved an unbeatable combination. In the concert opener, Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge – the work that gave him his international reputation at its Salzburg premiere in 1937 – the CLS's ensemble and intonation needed some attention. Unduly lengthy pauses in between the variations also diminished its overall coherence.
Contrasting vividly with these more sombre items, Constant Lambert's brilliant 1927 Rio Grande nevertheless provided a strong vehicle for choir, orchestra and pianist Martin Roscoe, whose flamboyant keyboard cascades hit just the right note of jazzy impropriety. Some additional choreographed puppetry, though, added nothing of value.
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