Having so fruitfully focused its previous season on Kurt Weill, the Cantata Singers have embarked on a new yearlong exploration of the life and music of another 20th century composer: Benjamin Britten.
It would be hard to overstate the virtues of this probing approach to programming. Rather than being bounced aimlessly from one concert to the next, the audience is guided on a sustained musical and intellectual journey, in this case, toward the heart of a profound yet elusive modern voice. Each program builds on the last, and the chorus has even gone to the trouble of assembling a richly informed 144-page Britten reader containing not only the notes for individual concerts but also essays, tributes, and a wealth of biographic details. It's one of the best things I've seen produced by any chorus in a long time.
Even with such a smart concept and deluxe packaging, of course, the success of this season will turn on the performances themselves. On Friday night in Jordan Hall, David Hoose led the chorus, ensemble, and guest soloists in beautifully delivered, richly satisfying performances of six Britten works. Written over three decades, the music varied greatly in style and tone and yet the program was unified by Britten's remarkably subtle yet direct artistry and the uncanny emotional precision of his music.
The evening began with "Lachrymae," the composer's brief gem for solo viola and (in this case) strings. First written for the great William Primrose as a viola-piano work in 1950, "Lachrymae" is brooding, mercurial music full of whispered asides and intense private confessions. It's also a piece remarkably tailored to the darkly honeyed tone world of the viola, as was demonstrated on Friday night by Roger Tapping in his deeply felt and uncommonly eloquent performance. Hoose's small string orchestra painted in subtle half-tints and the work's final bars seemed to glow with a quiet inner light.
Some of the searching emotional tenor of "Lachrymae" is also found in the composer's much-loved Serenade, a sublimely sensitive setting for tenor, horn, and strings of short English poems (by Tennyson, Blake, Keats, and others) tracing an arc of yearning and loss. The young tenor Michael Slattery gave a responsive, affecting performance and James Sommerville stepped in masterfully to replace the originally scheduled horn soloist Michael Thompson. Hoose and his strings were attuned to this music's subtle blend of candor and reserve. Serenade, like so much of Britten's music, somehow manages to share its pain while guarding its secrets.
The evening was also of course a showcase for the chorus, which performed with dexterity and an impeccably blended sound in "Five Flower Songs," conjuring just the right veiled quality for its luminous account of "The Evening Primrose." Mezzo-soprano Janna Baty was the vocally rich and dramatically forceful soloist in "Phaedra," the composer's darkly haunting cantata from his late years.
But the evening ended with wit and optimism courtesy of Britten's "Rejoice in the Lamb" (in a version orchestrated by Imogen Holst). In this work, the composer set portions of Christopher Smart's "Jubilate Agno," an eccentric 18th-century poem that extols the presence of God in all things, including flowers, the trumpet, the mouse, the letter H, and "my cat Jeoffry." Out of Smart's roiling panentheism, Britten fashioned a work at once light, serious, and full of invention. The orchestra and chorus, with several able soloists drawn from within its ranks, did this music deft justice, capping a delightful evening.