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.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear