Sweet lullaby of death

CLASSICAL ECO / Harry Christophers Barbican Centre, London

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If Harry Christophers' reputation was initially established through his work on early music with his choir, The Sixteen, he has proved to command a much wider range of styles, and he directed the English Chamber Orchestra in an impressive concert of 19th- and 20th-century French music at the Barbican Centre on Wednesday evening.

Immediately evident was his way with harmonic texture and orchestral sonority, and in Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperinhe drew from his players the most fastidiously weighted sound, frequently allowing the purely sonic quality of the composer's remarkable invention to make expressive points. Taking more than usually seriously Ravel's reflection of 18th-century keyboard music, Christophers avoided the romantic mannerisms that characterise some interpretations of the piece and generated a baroque rhythmic impetus. The Minuet might have been taken a little too briskly for some tastes, but overall this was a thoughtful and multi-dimensional performance reaching back in time rhythmically while acknowledging the floating sonorities of Ravel's 20th-century ear.

The quality of sensually graded sound continued to mark all that both Christophers and his orchestra did, whether in the pearly greys and silvers of Faure or the Gallic crispness of Saint-Saens. With his boldly imaginative approach to the arching lyricism of Faure's Elegie,cello soloist Raphael Wallfisch found himself supported by an orchestral accompaniment of wide dynamic range (it was a joy to hear genuine pianissimos of palpable sonority) and of pastel beauty. This was an interpretation to recall with pleasure, and it was the prelude to a vigorous and elegantly shaped reading of Saint- Saens's Concerto in A minor.

Urgent in expression, yet with the space to let the Minuet's uncanny recall of childhood innocence make its exquisite point, this was again a performance to cherish, and Wallfisch's sovereign technique brought Saint-Saens's highly characteristic world superbly to life, touching in emotion yet unsentimental and graciously poised.

So far, so very good, yet the highlight of the programme was yet to come, for after the interval we heard a most moving and commandingly structured performance of Faure's Requiem, one which had you searching your memory for an interpretation of comparable intensity and perfection of delivery in both the orchestral and choral forces.

The Tallis Chamber Choir, with the bright, edgy quality of their sopranos perfectly suited to the French repertory, and their firmly centred lower textures, served Faure's movingly discreet and intimate vision perfectly. They rose to the work's few climactic moments with becoming vigour and for the rest sustained a calm intensity that did indeed evoke the "lullaby of death" envisaged by the composer. Baritone Michael George, although suffering from a throat infection, sang with style and warmth, and treble Connor Burrowes gave us a marvellous "Pie Jesu", stalwart in the face of audience coughing that threatened disruption. One recalled a Zubin Mehta story in which an irate listener rose to his feet under similar circumstances and shouted: "This is a concert hall, not a sanatorium."

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