Daring and yet reverent
30 December 2016

“The Choir of Trinity College can do no wrong with Layton in command” writes Melanie Eskenazi (Music OMH) of their recent performance of Bach: Mass in B minor.  “No one could ask for more incisive attack, more control of volume of greater understanding in terms of the shaping of phrases - Et resurrexit should sound emphatic enough to raise the dead, just as Dona nobis pacem should be prayerful and redolent of hope, and both lived up to expectation in spectacular style.  A powerful performance of this great work, daring and yet reverent.”

On the other side of the world, Australia is still echoing with praise for the Choir’s tour with Musica Viva in July/August 2016.  “This ensemble turned Frank Martin’s Mass for Unaccompanied Double Choir into a revelation” writes Clive O’Connell (The Age - Melbourne) in his review of the classical highlights of 2016.  “…where you expected awkwardness and effort…Stephen Layton delineated each line with impeccable clarity, their fluent interpretation somehow improving itself as each segment passed”.


Visit our review archive here and use the extensive search facility to explore what else is being said about Stephen Layton.  

The Limelight Recording of the Year 2016
19 December 2016

Leading Australian classical music and arts magazine Limelight has announced Stephen Layton's Howells: Collegium Regale & other choral works as its Recording of the Year 2016.

Recorded in Coventry Cathedral with Trinity College Choir, this is Layton's second recording of the music of Herbert Howells. 

Read the full Limelight announcement here

Praise for Howells: Collegium Regale & other choral works

"Stephen Layton has invested Howells’ music with a grandeur, a space and a freedom" - Limelight Magazine, 2016

"This is a stunning recording in so many respects. Attention to dynamic detail, especially the hushed quality of the Magnificat, brings out the ethereal, not to say numinous character of this highly original miniature, imbued as it is with a whiff of French Impressionism" - Gramophone Magazine, 2016

“This selection has all of the polish and charisma to be expected from one of Britain's most accomplished choral conductors, Stephen Layton, and his excellent Cambridge Choir" - Classic FM Magazine, 2016

More about this disc

Watch Trinity College Choir's video of the Nunc dimittis

Read Stephen Layton's exclusive Limelight interview

Listen to track tasters

Order your copy from Hyperion Records


Hallelujah! A bright, brilliant ‘Messiah’ at Seattle Symphony
18 December 2016

What a difference a conductor makes

The Seattle Symphony’s guest maestro for this year’s “Messiah” performances, Stephen Layton, put his own expert stamp on Handel’s most famous oratorio Friday evening in the first of four performances at Benaroya Hall. Imaginative, lively, and full of drama, this was a “Messiah” worth the audience’s “hallelujah.”

Layton, a distinguished British conductor whose recordings with the ensemble Polyphony are prized by choral fans, has put together a distinctive and convincing version of the Handel classic. There are several trims; audiences may be startled to see the performance move directly from “The trumpet shall sound” to “Worthy is the lamb,” but it makes dramatic sense. (And few will regret the omission of some of the intervening numbers; even Handel was unevenly inspired, particularly when he was in a hurry. He composed his “Messiah” in just under three weeks.)

Full of exciting contrasts and beautifully tailored dynamics, Layton’s briskly paced reading commands the listener’s involvement. The chorus “Surely he hath borne our griefs” was given punchy, almost aggressive accents. “All we like sheep” was all rollicking energy until the final line (“The iniquity of us all”), which Layton drew out at great length, leaning on the dissonance of a minor second in the next-to-last bar.

With a wealth of expressive details and dynamic contrasts, this was a performance that made clear Layton’s mastery of this score and its timing. There were no awkward pauses; soloists moved into place before their entrances, and the transitions were nearly seamless. The soloists, all from various locations in the British Isles, included soprano Eleanor Dennis, mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston, tenor Gwilym Bowen, and baritone Robert Davies. They ranged from commendable to downright thrilling. Dominating that latter category was Bowen, who made the kind of impact not heard here since the lone “Messiah” appearance in Seattle of the great English tenor Phillip Langridge, back in the late 1970s. Lyrical and agile, with considerable expressive depth, Bowen delivered every phrase as if it had just occurred to him, with unfailingly expressive spontaneity. His “Thy rebuke” was positively heart-rending.

The Chorale, prepared by Joseph Crnko, was a fleet and nimble ensemble, following Layton’s tempo changes with alacrity. The trimmed-down orchestra, with Simon James as concertmaster, played with very little vibrato; David Gordon’s trumpet solos were nobly executed. Organist Joseph Adam added to the drama by dashing from the small onstage instrument up to the loft of the mighty Watjen concert organ for a final “Amen” that shivered the timbers of the hall — and the audience.

Go, if you can: who knows when the Symphony will be able to lure Layton back, and hearing him at work with these musical forces is a holiday treat not to be missed.

Review by Melinda Bargreen



Messiah: Performances around the World
13 December 2016

"Layton’s approach to Handel’s popular masterpiece is full of insight, and the result a performance to be remembered – and with Messiah, that’s saying something" writes Peter Burdon in The Adelaide Advertiser.

One of the 9 Messiah performances Layton will conduct across the globe this season, this performance in Adelaide Town Hall was fantastically well received by critics and audience members alike.

"Layton’s approach is idiosyncratic, to be sure – to wit the astonishing use of the Town Hall’s vast Walker pipe organ in full roar in the closing bars of the “Amen chorus. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. And it was utterly thrilling." The Adelaide Advertiser

Messiah 2016: Australia-USA-UK

For more than a decade Polyphony has given annual sell-out performances of Bach’s St John Passion and Handel’s Messiah at St John’s Smith Square. These have become notable events in London’s music calendar and have been broadcast by BBC Radio 3 and the EBU. According to the Evening Standard, “no one performs Handel’s Messiah better every year than the choir Polyphony”.  

Read more about Stephen Layton's Handel Recording Project

Early Music Today interview with Stephen Layton
4 December 2016

Choral celebrations

Catherine Groom catches up with Stephen Layton, for whom this December brings a plethora of significat milestones.

Choral director Stephen Layton is contemplating the upcoming St John's Smith Square Christmas Festival from his set of rooms overlooking Great Court at Trinity College, Cambridge.  Somewhat fittingly in light of the college's illustrious mathematical history, there's a concatenation of significant birthdays and numbers to celebrate this year: the festival is 30 years old (this year's edition being the 31st festival) and Layton has been there for 20.  He also celebrates his own 50th birthday this December, as he celebrates each birthday, by conducting the final concert in the series - the well-known and loved St John's Smith Square Christmas Messiah.  His group Polyphony turn 30 this year, too; and Layton has been at the helm here at Trinity for 10 years.  An opportunity both to celebrate and to relfect, then - and neither is in short supply within the festival's programme.

There's a veritable choral feast on the menu, with early delicacies from the Gesualdo Six, the Cardinall's Musick, La Serenissima and the Tallis Scholars; high calibre chapel-choir offerings from Christ Church and Merton representing Oxford, Trinity and Clare representing Cambridge, and King's College London; contemporary consort programmes from Ex Cathedra and Tenebrae, larger choral offerings from the City of London Choir and the Holst SIngers; organist David Titterington and the National Youth Theatre offering even more varied fare; and finally, the two big finishers - the aforementioned Messiah, and a Mass in B minor, both with the Orchestra of the Age of Englightenment.

Layton rehearses the annual 'Messiah" with Polyphony and The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
St John's Smith Square - 28th Christmas Festival 2013

Something that strikes me about the festival is that it's curated with a very light touch; there's no tightly managerially-controlled uniting theme in all the programming, and all of Layton's invited artists seem to retain a high degree of artistic autonomy - yet there's minimal programme overlap across an extensive Christmas choral festival.  How does Layton begin putting this together?

"We've had a lot of groups who have a following, where we know that their concerts go well and that their concerts are trusted by the audience.  And that's the most important thing, rather than having an artistic policy that seeks to control.  If you're only going to produce a certain type of music you're inevitably going to limit the appeal of what you're doing to a certain niche market.  I suppose the only way in which one would say it's curated in any way with any strength is that it's tried to be the very oppostie of what is celebrated in some of the bigger halls in London - I think of the Christmas-spectacular type things - and these are marvellous type of things, but this is very much in contrast to that.  Many interesting and sometimes quite risky things take place in this festival, on the back of this Messiah, and they've developed a bigger audience base, and I think everybody's winning artistically, and I think Joe Punter is winning too with this incredibly wide sophisticated choice of things that they can go to that are Christmas-appropriate."

It's the only major festival that overtly seeks to showcase and to celebrate the 'Oxbridge choral tradition' in the context of other choral traditions.  I wondered where Layton would place himself within that possibly invidious notion, given that one of his major personal legacies will be the indefatigable fashion in which he has broadened its repertoire, notably with Baltic and American musics.

"Interesting question!  I'm a product of it, that's the thing! - and I've become all the more aware of it through the travelling I've done.  I've met many interesting choirs and groups and conductors and composers on my travels, but I've realised all the more clearly the uniqueness of the British choral tradition.  It's got to stem back historically to the fact that the choirs in our cathedrals survived the various revolutions that we've had in the country; whereas in France for instance they didn't - the organs did, but not the choirs.  I suppose I've just twigged that what's been built into me through those things, I believe, is very precious, and I feel blessed and fortunate that somehow it has been imbued in me, and then I feel I just want to tell everybody about it because I'm quite excited by it and want people to share it, because if I'm getting excited I know that others will as well, and I want them to share in it - so I want to spread the news."

Layton clearly remains bursting with creative energy, and shows no signs of slowing down.  As he marks so many significant numbers, though, what makes him most proud as he looks back on what he's covered thus far?  He's an intensely modest man, and the question causes him to go very quiet.

"I'd like to think... that if somebody had to say when I'd died... that there was a sound, that when I was with my musicians, there was a sound that they knew.  I suppose that I feel a strength of conviction in the inner voice that I hear, of the sounds that I'm wanting to bring to life, and I hear an unshakeable something in my head, that is a voice, that I know that I'm trying to create in this sound, and I've been aware of that for quite a long time.  I'd be very proud if people could hear that when they listen to the music-making."

I have no doubt that that is the case.  The musical examples Layton sings me during the hour or so we spend together, though throwaway and off-the-cuff, all have a certain centred-ness about them, a core of emotional integrity pointing to a terrifically strong inner ear, and it's undoubtedly responsible for Polyphony and Trinity's burnished sounds, refined but reined in with 'glow' rather than insipidity.  I wonder what is next on the horizon?

'burnished sounds...refined but reined in with 'glow''

"I'm about to do a recording of what to me is the Everest of the whole thing.  In January I'm about to record the B-minor Mass, and so that feels to me like the most extraordinarily privileged situation to have ever found myself in - that I should be able to do that.  And I haven't done it yet and I'm not counting my chickens, either, on it, and it's humbling and an awesome prospect that I'm even considering that I'm even daring to try it.  I think it's got so much stuff shrouded in mists about it as to what the composer might have intended and what his forces were and how fast was this, and it's just impossible to answer, and so you've just got to go with what you feel.  Scholarship will only get you so far."

A salutary message for any early musician, perhaps.  

Interview by Catherine Groom - Early Music Today

Print version of this interview available below

Howells: Collegium Regale - New Video
1 April 2016

A new recording, Howells: Collegium Regale is now available on Hyperion Records.  

For a taste of the magic of the recording sessions in Coventry Cathedral, UK, you can watch this new video from The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge.

The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge
Howells: Collegium Regale & Other works

Listen to extracts, get a free download track, or download the complete album on the Hyperion Records site. 


Selling coals to Newcastle?
26 March 2016

There was once rather a lot of coal in Newcastle.  If you had coals to sell, it was not a sensible destination.  This was a sentiment the singers and musicians of Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment identified with last week.  They were daring to travel to Germany to offer them Bach.  Specifically, Bach's St John Passion, which was to be performed in the dramatic Alte Oper in Frankfurt.  

The musicians stepped out on stage on Saturday 19 March with humility; the critical reaction they have since received has been extraordinary.

"The opening chorus of the St John Passion, 'Herr unser Herrscher’, made one rub one’s eyes in amazement" writes Harald Budweg for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, describing Polyphony's singing as "masterfully confident...balanced, wonderfully homogeneous, and with decidedly refined vocal mastery".

To Budweg, the audience were "witnesses at a trial" and the drama of the performance akin to "attending a court hearing, where there was as much quarrelling, polemicising as there was moralising: Ian Bostridge sang the role of the reporting evangelist with many nuances. His extremely flexible and sharply contrastive voice, underlined the breadth of the psychological span between warm words and icy hatred... The others fitted into the concept almost seamlessly: Neil Davies sang the words of Jesus with such balanced and calm superiority that the perplexity of Pontius Pilate became almost palpable."

"A performance of theatrical density" writes Stefan Michalzik for Frankfurter Rundschaualso noting how "Layton structures with sharp precision, the dramatic arc is taut. With a keen sense for dynamic subtleties, he was able to spur on the period instrument specialists from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to a zestful performance."

Klaus Ackermann, writing for Op-online.de, draws particular attention to "the velvety silvery sound of the orchestra" and Polyphony's "thrilling rhythmic drive",declaring the performance "a spectacular Bach Passion performed by a ‘historically’ briefed Britons".

Read the reviews and translations in full here


"Stephen Layton's Choral Mission"
21 March 2016

2016 is a year of significant milestones for Stephen Layton. In the year that he turns 50, he also marks 10 years as Director of Music at Trinity College, and 30 years since Polyphony was formed.  

In the March 2016 edition of Gramophone Magazine, Martin Cullingford speaks to Stephen Layton about his career so far.  


Upcoming Release - Howells: Collegium Regale & other choral works
4 March 2016

On 1 April 2016 Hyperion Records will release a new album with The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge singing the music of Herbert Howells.  

Howells: Collegium Regale & other choral works follows their Gramophone Award winning recording of Howells released in 2012.  Pre-order your copy on iTunes now!


Musica Viva International Concert Season
4 March 2016

Stephen Layton and the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge will be touring Australia with Musica Viva between 17 July - 4 August 2016.  Singing glorious traditional sacred music, alongside innovative and beautiful new music from Europe and Australia, the choir will give 11 performances in 7 venues.

For this tour they will perform one of the 20th-century’s most beautiful choral works: the 1922 'Mass for Unaccompanied Double Choir' by Frank Martin. The composer regarded it as an intensely personal spiritual expression – it took forty years for him to allow it to be heard – and it has never left the spotlight since.

Surrounding Martin’s masterpiece is a rich cache of smaller pieces. Of special note are two new works: one by the choir’s Organ Scholar, Owain Park; and another by the Australian Joe Twist, commissioned especially for this tour.

Organ Programme  

Brisbane   -   Canberra   -    Adelaide   -   Perth

PÄRT Bogoróditse
BYRD O Lord, Make Thy Servant
TALLIS Salvator mundi
PURCELL Remember Not, Lord, Our Offences
STUCKY O sacrum convivium
EŠENVALDS The Heavens’ Flock
RAUTAVAARA Evening Hymn, Ekteniya
PARK The Wings Of The Wind
ELGAR Give Unto The Lord


TWIST Hymn of ancient lands (World Premiere)
Commissioned for Musica Viva by Mary and Paul Pollard
MARTIN Mass for Unaccompanied Double
HOWELLS Te Deum (Collegium Regale)

A Capella Programme 

Melbourne Weekend & Weekday   -   Sydney Weekend & Weekday
Newcastle   -   Hobart Evening & Afternoon

PÄRT Bogoróditse Djévo
BYRD O Lord, Make Thy Servant
TALLIS Salvator Mundi
PURCELL Remember Not, Lord, Our Offences
STUCKY O Sacrum Convivium
EŠENVALDS The Heavens’ Flock
WHITACRE i thank You God for most this amazing day
RAUTAVAARA Evening Hymn, Ekteniya


TWIST Hymn of ancient lands (World Premiere)
Commissioned for Musica Viva by Mary and Paul Pollard
MARTIN Mass for Unaccompanied Double Choir
PARK The Wings Of The Wind

This tour is managed by Musica Viva Australia. Tickets can be purchased via their website. 
The Adelaide concert is presented in association with State Opera of South Australia. 


Bach: St John Passion - Easter 2016
29 February 2016

"Stephen Layton has forged his own, near folkloric tradition by conducting his elite choir, Polyphony, in Bach's St John Passion every year on Good Friday for at least a decade. Yet nothing about their performance is habitual: the renewal of the choir or a change of soloists ignites each performance anew." The Observer, 2012

This year will be no exception, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment joining Polyphony and top soloists on stage in Frankfurt, Paris and London.

"Their approach to Bach’s St John Passion is guided by the twin virtues of courage and commitment, sweeping reticence aside in pursuit of dramatic truths and eternal metaphors at the work’s heart. Listen to the opening chorus and you’ll hear a group of musicians playing and singing as if their lives depended on it."
Sinfini Music, 2013

Alte Oper - Frankfurt
Saturday 19 March, 8pm
Ian Bostridge (Evangelist) - Neal Davies (Jesus) - Julia Doyle (Soprano) - Iestyn Davies (Counter tenor) - Stuart Jackson (Tenor) - Roderick Williams (Baritone)

Théâtre des Champs Elysées - Paris
Wednesday 23 March, 8pm
Ian Bostridge (Evangelist) - Neal Davies (Jesus) - Julia Doyle (Soprano) - Iestyn Davies (Counter tenor) - Stuart Jackson (Tenor) - Roderick Williams (Baritone)

St John’s Smith Square - London
Friday 25 March, 2.30pm
Stuart Jackson (Evangelist) - Neal Davies (Jesus) - Julia Doyle (Soprano) - Iestyn Davies (Counter tenor) - Gwilym Bowen (Tenor) - Roderick Williams (Baritone)

Listen to excerpts from the disc - Buy tracks from Hyperion - Read more about the recording project - Read reviews


Missa Unitatis: Return to the Netherlands
25 January 2016

This April the Netherlands Kamerkoor welcomes back former chief-conductor Stephen Layton to direct a series of concerts across the country.  

"According to ancient tradition, in 2008 the deans of the Illustre Lieve Vrouwe Broederschap of ‘s-Hertogenbosch commissioned the British composer Antony Pitts to compose a complete polyphonic mass. This way, the Broederschap added to the religious heritage of the future. The Missa Unitatis is magical: it creates a bridge between five centuries of music and several religions.

The name of the mass refers to the Oecomenic identity of the Broederschap, that decided in 1642 that brothers had to be one half catholic, one half protestant. The work is written for two choirs, forming both separately and together a complete composition. The version for two choirs has never been performed up until now. "


Select a venue for more information.


A Personal Passion
25 January 2016

Next month Stephen Layton presents a very intimate performance of Bach’s St John Passion BWV 245 in St John’s Smith Square.  The choral lineup is nothing short of autobiographical, with Layton bringing together the forces of the two schools that shaped his childhood and launched his musical career.

It was as a boy chorister singing in Winchester Cathedral that Layton first knew he wanted to be a musician.  In the NTR Podium Documentary, Layton emotionally recalls his distinct vocation unfolding during the opening notes of his first rehearsal on a cold morning in January. Aged 9, hundreds of miles away from his parents, and in the alien environment of a private school, quite different from the Derbyshire council estate in which he grew up, Layton was bewildered by his new surroundings yet instantly at home once singing commenced around him. Working with the young singers from Winchester College for this performance infuses the music with memories of a lot of happiness for Layton, and of an education that ignited his passion for music making.

Stephen Layton (Front Row, second from left) sings in Notre Dame with Winchester Cathedral Choir in 1978

NTR Podium Documentary filmed in 2012. Stephen's time in Winchester is featured from 7mins 50.

After Winchester, Layton secured a full-fee music scholarship to Eton College where singing in and directing choirs proved formative. Choirs from this distinguished establishment will also take to the stage on Friday 12 February 2016.

Layton is not alone in owing the debt to these educational establishments for such a rich beginning to his musical career. James Gilchrist (Evangelist), Ashley Riches (Pilate) and James Birchall (Jesus) are Winchester old boys, while Clint van der Linde (Countertenor) and Andrew Staples (Tenor) are both Eton old boys. This constellation of soloists will be joined on stage by The Academy of Ancient Music.


Stephen Layton’s portrait painted by Derek Hill still hangs in the school. The tradition of “Eton Leavers’ Portraits” was started in the 17th Century by headmaster Dr Barnard (1754 – 1765).

This concert in St John’s Smith Square promises to offer a glimpse not only into Layton’s childhood but also into what he has done with his music since and in particularl this landmark piece by Bach.

Annual Good Friday performances of Bach's St John Passion with Polyphony at St John's Smith Square, London, have been running for over 10 years.  In recent years, additional performances have been held across Europe in the Theatre des Champs Elysees, Paris (2013), the Theatre an der Wien, Austria (2012), and in the Blue Hall, DeSignel, Antwerp, Belgium (2014).  In 2013, a CD recording of the work, featuring Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, was released on the Hyperion Records label.  This year Polyphony will be performing the work in FrankfurtParis and London.  

Bach: St John Passion
Polyphony & Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment - Hyperion Recording Sessions, All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London (March 2013)

Tracks from this recording can be found here and selected reviews here.

Concert information including links to buy tickets online can be found here.