My Beloved Man



The 4th choir is just over a decade old now, and has established an outstanding reputation in a capella performance across the whole extent of the choral repertory, from medieval polyphony through to modern new commissions. We enjoyed its full range at Milton Court last night in a programme that ingeniously combined the full gamut of choral singing styles with a celebration of the relationship between Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears – all-in-all a thoroughly rewarding and revealing contribution to ‘Classical Pride.’

While the programme unsuprisingly included works by Britten itself, the focus was rather more on works by composers who were dear to him, whether earlier figures such as Perotin, Monteverdi and Thomas Morley, or close cotemporaries such as his assistant, Imogen Holst or Michael Tippett. Interleaved among the motets were readings from the letters Britten and Pears exchanged with one another in a relationship that endured for nearly 40 years, many only recently highlighted within the huge surviving Aldeburgh archives.

These extracts were beautifully read and interpreted by Petroc Trelawny and Samuel Barnett, both of whom are steeped in this material, whether through Trelawny’s huge experience as one of the instantly recognisable broadcasters on Radio 3, or Barnett’s recent appearance in the play ‘Ben and Imo’. What was a real revelation was the quality of the letters, evocative and precise in their descriptions or distillations of events or moods, when many were written in haste or under stress and tension. It was a reminder of how much effort and ability used to go into the art of writing letters, with no eye on publication or third parties, where the writers themselves, though creative artists of rare stature, were not in any way professionals.

Two abiding memories from these exchanges were the many wry and camp observations of interactions with royalty, much of it filtered through cod-German, including frequent droll references to the Königin-Mama! But, more seriously, we were made constantly aware of the hostile environment in which these two men lived, for all their Establishment connections, where their relationship always had to be somewhat under the radar, and when subterfuge and concealment were never far away.

Where perhaps the show’s structure could have been tightened was in making the connections between the choices of music and the themes evoked in the letters. Sometimes there was a natural segue from text to tone, but often, unless you really know a great deal about Britten, the continuity remained a bit obscure. Perhaps the presenters could at points have switched to being narrators just to provide more context and interpretation.

The music, on the other hand, was superlatively performed, and especially so in the second half where the choir were essentially ‘off-book’. This enhanced the directness of attack and emotional impact no end. Throughout the evening a full spectrum of dynamics was explored in a concert hall that registers such distinctions with precision. Solo and small group moments were well taken, as, for example, in Britten’s ‘Hymn to the Virgin’, and where needed, the full force of the choir was released too, for instance in a fierce and moving rendition of Bernstein’s ‘Somewhere.’ A short review cannot do justice to the many high points of the concert but the new commission by Isobel Waller-Bridge, ‘Let Go’, was particularly powerful, so that you wanted to hear it again to appreciate its many layers; and the final sequence of the second half had a gathering force culminating in the conductor’s fine arrangement of Purcell’s ‘When I am laid in earth.’

This presentation was an exemplary case study in how to blend and combine words and music in mutually rewarding context.


Milton Court Theatre

The Fourth Choir

Creative Producer: Seamus Rea

Conductor: Nicholas Chalmers

Presenters: Samuel Barnett & Petroc Trelawney

Photo Credit: Matthew Johnson

5 July 2024

2 hours with interval