Ghosts in the Ruins review – Nitin Sawhney’s Coventry celebration fails to rise to the occasion

It’s 60 years since the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, built alongside the ruins of the medieval one that was destroyed by bombing in 1940. The opening of the building was marked by a number of significant music commissions, including Arthur Bliss’s Beatitudes, Michael Tippett’s opera King Priam, and, most famously, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. And it’s Britten’s work that provides the starting point for Nitin Sawhney’s Ghosts in the Ruins, commissioned as part of Coventry’s year as UK city of culture to mark the anniversary.

Promised as a site-specific work reflecting present-day Coventry’s role as a “city of sanctuary”, it proved to be disappointingly bland. The first part of the 75-minute work is performed in the new cathedral, the second among the atmospheric ruins of the old, yet it never manages to articulate the dialogue between past and present and war and peace that I suspect is intended, and much of the work has the inert feeling of a dutiful school concert.

A distant recording of the Libera me from Britten’s requiem was intended as the work’s ghostly beginning, though on the first night its effect was ruined as latecomers were still being noisily seated after it had begun. The choral setting by Sawhney that followed – very well sung by the Coventry Cathedral choir – set the tone for what is a curiously Anglican sequence, far removed from Sawhney’s usual richly varied musical palette. The choral numbers are interspersed with poems written and read by local Coventry poets, led by the city’s Poet Laureate, Emily Lauren Jones and its Young Poet Laureate, Hawwa Hussain, and interludes of pulsing ambient music from the violinist Eos Counsell and vocalist YVA, during which images from Coventry’s wartime past and hugely diverse present (assembled by Mark Murphy) were projected on to screens flanking the cathedral’s nave.

It all unfolds very sedately, without a hint of drama or theatricality, but the second half, framed by the ragged walls of the old cathedral, at least offers a change of pace: a series of choral numbers over a persistent rhythm for which the cathedral choirs are joined by members of the Spires Music choir and the Choir With No Name, decorated by Counsell’s multi-tracked violin. The style is somewhere between Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi. The ending, however, is perfunctory, and the total effect puzzling. It would have helped greatly to know what the texts for the choral settings were; in a work in which the words obviously matter so much, they were nowhere to be found.

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