Choir of King’s College Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury

Cambridge University Music Society Chorus and Orchestra
Southwark Cathedral, London
Guardian review: three stars

The Nordic midsummer - the theme of this year’s City of London Festival - has long preoccupied Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, whose new cantata The Sorcerer’s Mirror received its second performance in Southwark Cathedral on Monday evening together with his 1979 setting of George Mackay Brown’s mythic narration of the birth of the Orkneys in Solstice of Light.

The Sorcerer’s Mirror sets a series of sonnets by Andrew Motion, representing both the outgoing Poet Laureate and the incumbent Master of the Queen’s Music at their committed, craftsman-like best. Though the “north” of Motion’s verse is North London, his gaze soon spreads outwards, tracing the confused warbling of the “sleepless song thrush” to its environmental causes. The music is masterfully economical, combining for the most part a declamatory style with a simple, stirring orchestral accompaniment. Repetition is scarce and the word painting is immediate and powerful, the “sour music of traffic” opening out a brief polyphonic foray, and the falling of rain conjuring a sprightly dance to depict the forming of the sorcerer’s mirror from a puddle in the poet’s garden. The orchestra and choir of Cambridge University’s Music Society, who commissioned the piece to celebrate the university’s 800th anniversary, did themselves proud.

It is also 800 years since London Bridge was build in stone, a fact commemorated in John Harle’s City Solstice for choir, organ and saxophone. There is much cleverness in Harle’s setting, especially in the interweaving of traditional London folksongs (especially “London Bridge is falling down”) and the entwining of Sebastian Johns’s commendably steady treble voice with Harle’s own soprano saxophone, but both the setting and Tom Pickard’s verse are overly contrived. Certainly, the work suffers by comparison to the elemental Solstice of Light, though Stephen Cleobury and his choir – who are in excellent general form at present – gave their all to both works. A lively opening blast from Haydn’s Creation whet the musical and mythological appetite.

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