London Sinfonietta/Elts, Southwell Minster, Southwell

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The Independent Culture

A new work by Gavin Bryars was the climax of an intelligently planned London Sinfonietta concert in the inspiring surroundings of Nottinghamshire's Southwell Minster.

A new work by Gavin Bryars was the climax of an intelligently planned London Sinfonietta concert in the inspiring surroundings of Nottinghamshire's Southwell Minster.

The programme contained three examples of the past refracted through the present: Arvo Pärt's If Bach had been a Beekeeper balanced witty pastiche and onomatopoeically buzzing virtuosity; Erkki-Sven Tüür's Passion-Illusion fused the music of many styles and periods into a convincing whole; and Bryars's In Nomine, based on one of Purcell's pieces for six-part viol consort, was a subtle yet intensely personal tribute.

The Sinfonietta's deeply felt performance of Sibelius's Valse Triste was sensitively moulded by the conductor Olari Elts - a fresh and vital reading.

The Sinking of the Titanic (1969) was one of Bryars's first significant achievements. Conceived as a piece of visual art, the piece grew out of the reported fact of the band playing the hymn tune "Autumn" as the ship sank. The composer imagines the music continuing after the sinking, mixed in with other features of the disaster and fragments of interviews with survivors. The result is eccentric but uniquely poignant.

Bryars's new piece, From Egil's Saga, for bass soloist, chamber orchestra, electronics and chorus, takes its material from verses by the 10th-century Icelandic warrior-poet Egil Skallagrimsson. The settings, sung in Icelandic, include a poem in celebration of Erik Bloodaxe, a lament for the poet's dead sons, and a late verse in which the poet bemoans his declining powers.

Bryars created the bass role for Runi Brattaberg, and the performance was dominated by the massive frame and sonorous voice of the Faroese singer. Pre-recorded laments sung by Brattaberg in resonant Faroe Islands appear at transitional points - an effective and evocative touch.

But an ingredient in short supply was Viking spirit. Voices and instruments in the lowest registers (no violins in the string section), provided a lush tonal background which, on first hearing, sounded stylistically incongruous: far from Scandinavian, the opulent harmonies and creamy string writing sounded more like Richard Strauss at his most calorific. The range of raw emotions present in the verse was hardly matched by Bryars's plush, ear-caressing melodies, gorgeous though they often were.

A lavish celebration of tonality and a tailor-made showpiece for Brattaberg's resonant, primeval-sounding voice, From Egil's Saga is also an incongruously urbane response to an occasionally earthy, violent, anguished and raging text. However, substantial concert pieces for bass soloists are rare, so it deserves a warm welcome.

Norwich Cathedral, 23 Nov; Tilbury Cruise Terminal, Essex, 24 Nov; Middleton Hall, University of Hull, 25 Nov; Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (0870 382 8000) 9 Dec

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