Despite past recorded glories and an illustrious singing tradition that stretches back to the Crusades, the weekly choral activities of the Temple Church are known to few outside the legal profession. But the benchers of the Inner and Middle Temple may soon be in the news as custodians of a first-rate church choir, honed to perfection by an inspired young coach.
Stephen Layton follows Henry Walford Davies, George Thalben-Ball and John Birch to become only the fourth organist at the Temple Church since 1898. A former King's College organ scholar, he is arguably the most impressive choral trainer and conductor of his generation, a versatile musician who has already caught the ear with a series of fine recordings and powerful performances with his professional choir Polyphony and the splendid amateur Holst Singers.
Since crossing the Thames in September from Southwark Cathedral, where he had been assistant organist from 1989, Layton has enjoyed a general increase both in his freelance commitments and in his reputation for choral excellence.
On Wednesday he returned home from conducting a televised concert in the Royal Church in Copenhagen in time to prepare for last night's second instalment in a week-long Christmas festival at St John's Smith Square, in Westminster, that also includes two Polyphony performances of Handel's Messiah (tomorrow and Tuesday) and one of Bach's Christmas Oratorio (on Sunday). His weekend commitments also include training the Temple Church choristers for their regular Sunday and Christmas Day services.
Like fellow ex-Cambridge organ scholars Richard Hickox and Andrew Davis, he hopes to maintain faith with the English choral tradition without limiting his progress in other areas of music-making. "I feel a strong sense of identity with that tradition," he declares. "You could argue that Messiah is a hackneyed work, but it's something in which I have the strongest belief and that I think I can do well. It's a piece that is absolutely central to the English choral tradition and to my understanding of it."
Layton "fixed" his first Messiah while still up at King's, booking James Bowman and Emma Kirkby among his soloists, and repeating the work annually since with Polyphony, first at St Martin-in-the-Fields, now at St John's, Smith Square.
He recalls his time as a chorister at Winchester Cathedral under the direction of Martin Neary. Neary, who now holds Henry Purcell's old job at Westminster Abbey, used to spice the Winchester choir's daily diet of psalm singing with healthy portions of new music by Jonathan Harvey and John Tavener (whose Song for Athene he so poignantly featured in Princess Diana's funeral servive), as well as "authentic" revivals of Bach's St Matthew Passion, sung in German and using period instruments.
The young Layton's abiding concerns for choral accuracy and ensemble discipline, confirmed as he passed through Eton and King's College, were set at Winchester. "I still remember the vivid impression Tavener's Ultimos Ritos made on me when we performed it in the 1970s. I was incredibly lucky to have the chance to perform contemporary works and sing with early music orchestras when I was a boy."
Layton smiles when he recalls the pioneering period-instrument players employed for Neary's Winchester Bach concerts; many have since appeared under his own direction as members of the Brandenburg Consort and Canzona. He has also assimilated the use of authentic instruments, full-throated "Continental" choral tone and a sense of adventurous programme-planning into his own work, which differs sharply from the days when George Thalben- Ball directed the Temple Choir and boy treble Ernest Lough in their classic pre-war recording of O for the Wings of a Dove.
Mention of Lough's best-selling disc leads to an obvious question about Layton's plans for today's Temple Church choristers. Surely a record contract would do wonders for raising the choir's profile? "I think it's unwise to record with any group you've only just taken on," he replies, "so I have no plans to record until at least the year 2000." That's typical of his festina lente approach, supported by the slow-burn recording careers of Polyphony and the Holst Singers. Layton worked with both choirs in concert for many years before moving into the recording studio - and, when eventually he did, repertoire was, he says, the key.
Ted Perry, boss of Hyperion Records, was convinced by his unbridled passion for the choral music of Percy Grainger and by the strength of Polyphony's first disc of it for the label, opening the door to future recording projects. Layton's discography now includes Grainger's Jungle Book settings, a disc of obscure yet magnificent Russian and eastern European works, Britten's Christ's Nativity, Rutter's Requiem, memorable Holst and Vaughan Williams recitals, and choral input to Graham Johnson's complete survey of Schubert songs.
"To record is considered as the main sign of success today," Layton observes, "because you simply need these `calling- cards', even though the market is flooded with releases.
"The number of edits in an average recording is quite frightening," he adds. "Although I'm as guilty as anybody else in this, the obsession with stitching together a `perfect' recording is anti-musical. I'm convinced that we'll return to a situation where interesting repertoire ultimately rules over compilation albums and heavily-marketed artists. Meanwhile, there's nothing for people like me to do but continue exploring what we are sure is fine music. The most important thing is to give good live performances to the largest and most enthusiastic audiences possible. And that is worth 10,000 record sales to me."
Stephen Layton conducts: Handel's `Messiah', with Ian Bostridge, Catherine Bott, Catherine Wyn-Rogers and MIchael George, 7.30pm tomorrow; with James Bowman, Emma Kirkby, John Mark Ainsley and David Wilson-Johnson, 7.30pm Tues; Bach's `Christmas Oratorio', with Bott, Wyn-Rogers, Wilson-Johnson and James Gilchrist, 7.30pm Sun. At St John's Smith Square, London SW1. Booking: 0171-222 1061Reuse content