IF KING Canute had wished to see as well as "hear these good monks sing" in Ely Cathedral, he would have been out of luck. Stunning though the Cathedral is to look at, beautifully lit from both within and outside, its geography doesn't lend itself to concerts unless you're prepared to crane your neck at unnatural angles or just focus instead on the highly decorative roof.
It was a night for viewers of BBC 2 or listeners to Radio 3 rather than the 1,300 or so braving the cathedral's chill, glaring television lights and unhelpful sight lines. Many of the audience were as far from the action as the mists of time from which Mark-Anthony Turnage's specially commissioned work, About Time, appears to emerge. The centre-piece of a concert conducted by Sir Simon Rattle it drew together the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) and the smaller ensemble, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG). Each group, as is their custom, tuned to slightly different pitches, about a quarter of a tone apart, and Turnage had the challenge of bringing them together without compromising their individuality. With the OAE in the centre at the cathedral crossing, and the members of BCMG out on a limb to one side, there wasn't much chance of the two groups getting too close. With the added dimension of a brass quartet of BCMG players in the dizzy heights of the Octagon above, the emphasis was on the spatial element in time and place, as well as pitch. More of a fascinating patchwork quilt than a thoroughly integrated and interwoven tapestry, About Time - the material of which is largely based on a five- note fanfare-like motif - begins with the brass quartet then moves to a solo cello (Ulrich Heinen positioned like an island somewhere between the two groups) slithering uneasily in pitch. Wavering, bending and sliding, urged on by drums and maracas, the two opposite groups gradually come satisfyingly together.
It's a curious piece, touchingly effective against all the odds. From the same off-centre position BCMG played Two Organa by Oliver Knussen, based on the ancient musical technique, organum. Its elusive textures and fine instrumental detail spun around the cathedral acoustic, adding an ethereal quality to the performance.
No musical celebration of the millennium would be complete without Beethoven's Symphony No 9, of course, remarkable for its ability to span the centuries in its timeless celebration of mankind in relation to the universe. In his choice of refreshingly brisk tempi and his response to the theatricality of the work's dynamic contrasts, Simon Rattle secured a performance strongly etched in orchestral colour from the OAE with incisive singing from the four soloists, notably the bass baritone Thomas Quasthoff, and the Philharmonia Chorus.
King Canute would surely have liked what he heard even if he could only see it on one of the television monitors positioned around the Cathedral.
A version of this review appeared in later editions of Monday's paperReuse content