There is a clear reason why Britten’s The World of the Spirit is obscure. It is not very good.
A radio commission for Whit Sunday in 1938, as with similarly originated Company of Heaven in 1937, it constitutes spoken meditations with music to texts, spoken and sung, jointly assembled by Britten and R Ellis Roberts.
On the evidence presented here in a concert version cobbled by Britten authority Donald Mitchell in 1998 it is decidedly inferior to its predecessor. It lacks the same dramatic force and cohesive unity of words and music.
In the maze-like selection of literary scripts linked, often loosely, to the Holy Ghost/ Spirit, the music is frequently heard in almost fragmentary bursts between spoken texts. Every so often, it gave the impression of being incidental music; but it is deftly wrought, if for the most part, inconsequential.
It has its moments: the realisation of the Whit Sunday antiphon The Spirit of the Lord is rather splendid, while easily the most memorable number is Henry Vaughan’s O knowing, glorious spirit set for soprano, violin, flute and harp.
Why Britten employed four soloists is anyone’s guess. Only the soprano: Claire Surman who was first rate, and mezzo-soprano: a very promising Michaela Parry, had anything of substance to do.
Some awry vocal lines in what appeared to be Tennyson’s The Sun, The Moon, The Stars aside, the combined forces of Hallam Choral Society and Tideswell Singers did all that was asked of them by conductor Peter Taylor.
Julie Higginson and Christopher Wilkinson rendered their reading tasks well enough, if a little short projection every now and then.
There were impressive solo contributions from members of the Hallam Sinfonia, which collectively played admirably throughout, not least in Gounod’s gloriously operatic St Cecilia Mass.
For this, tenor David Watkin-Holmes and bass-baritone Jon Openshaw were more gainfully employed than in the Britten, but the chief glory was the choral singing, virile and ringing out with splendour, and accurate with it!