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Music review: Prom 50 - Stephen Layton, Polyphony, City of London Sinfonia

A concert of rare intellect.

Musical memorials take many forms, as Sunday night's Prom elegantly demonstrated. A concert dedicated to Richard Hickox, whose sudden death in 2008 robbed English music of one of its most persuasive champions, the evening reflected the conductor's legacy and tastes, but also explored the broader question of how we bear witness culturally, whether to a life, a death, or - in the case of the First World War - to an era-defining tragedy.

Described by composer Frank Bridge as "one of the few lovely things that has ever happened to me", Benjamin Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge sees the younger composer paying musical homage to his teacher and mentor, whose success he would so dramatically exceed but whose influence he would never outgrow. While showcasing the gamut of his technical skills (incorporating with sly wit many more quotations from Bridge than just the main theme), the Variations lack the smugness that colours many of Britten's earliest works.

Performed by the City of London Sinfonia, the ensemble founded by Hickox himself, the work's dramatic extremes were vividly painted. Directed by Stephen Layton, the violence of the lower string interjections of the "Funeral March" battled against the euphemising lyricism of the violins, while the "Wiener Walzer" had all the sinister sophistication of a ballroom described by Isherwood.

Macabre echoes of this latter movement persisted into the world premiere of Colin Matthews's No Man's Land that followed - a work originally commissioned by Hickox. A memorial to the composer's grandfather, killed at the Somme, this 20-minute oratorio stages a dialogue between the ghosts of two dead soldiers whose corpses are strung up on the barbed wire of no man's land.

Combining live orchestral textures (including an out-of-tune upright piano "of the kind that might have found its way to the Western Front") with recorded military marches and popular songs of the day, Matthews's music mirrors the fragmented rag-bag of images, the "memories and scraps of song and wisps of rhyme" that make up Christopher Reid's poem.

While the result is sonically distinctive, this very quality risks limiting the work's conceptual scope. Aurally we are snagged on the barbed wire of the literal, never allowed to wander as freely over the emotions and issues as Captain Gifford's text (sung with patrician lyricism by Ian Bostridge). With the shadows of Britten's War Requiem pre-empting Reid's ghostly figures, more than textural innovation is needed if No Man's Land is not to remain a postscript to this great work. It is perhaps the piece's other speaker, Roderick Williams's Cockney Sergeant Slack who emerges most poignantly, the jarring optimism of his bar ballads tarnished by cynical shrugs of orchestration - a lurking string pedal point, a dark chord in the low woodwind.

A thrilling reminder of why Layton has established himself as one of the finest choral conductors worldwide, the Mozart Requiem that followed transmuted the personal memorials of the first half into a generous and urgent testament to all humanity.

While Polyphony (particularly their men) are capable of some seriously wrathful thundering, it was with exploratory fragility that we opened - a musical plea (and an uncertain one at that) rather than the more traditional command, "Grant them eternal rest, O Lord." Framed by this vulnerability the operatic drama of the "Dies Irae" took fresh emphasis, illuminated by lightning flashes of consonants that the choir flung out into the audience. Only the solo quartet occasionally faltered, unbalanced by Bostridge whose voice, while expressive, seemed to belong to a different ensemble, lacking the fuller-textured vibrato of his colleagues and sitting particularly awkwardly in duets with soprano Emma Bell.

Homage; epitaph; memorial: this was a concert of rare intellect, a programme whose musical reach exceeded its grasp to substantial and poignant effect. While English music-making is much the poorer for the loss of Hickox, his legacy will long persist in the hands of such colleagues, collaborators and institutions.