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Polyphony is one of England’s most popular small choirs, offering popular annual performances of Handel and Bach that constitute major events on London’s annual musical calendar. The group’s repertory is unusually catholic, running from the Baroque to contemporary English works and Eastern European minimalism.
Polyphony was founded by conductor Stephen Layton, later director of music at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1986, while he was still a Cambridge undergraduate. The choir was originally intended to perform only for a single concert at King’s College Chapel, but the need for a small-to-medium-sized choir (Polyphony generally has about 25 members) outside the English cathedral tradition quickly became evident. The choir launched annual performances of Handel’s Messiah, HWV 56, and Bach’s St. John Passion, BWV 245, at London’s St. John’s Smith’s Square Concert Hall, and those have grown into defining events of the classical music Christmas season in London, with tickets often selling out well in advance. The choir has also made multiple appearances at the BBC Proms, including one, in 2011, with the City of London Sinfonia in Mozart’s Requiem, K. 626. Such Proms appearances have also been broadcast. Polyphony has toured occasionally, performing in Spain, France, and Brazil, among other countries. The choir, under Layton, has been especially notable for its commitment to contemporary music. This has included not only the popular British choral compositions of John Tavener, James MacMillan, and John Rutter but also, more unusually for an English choir, a wide range of non-British music: Polyphony has performed and recorded not only the popular choral music of Arvo Pärt, but also that of the lesser-known Veljo Tormis, Pawel Lukaszewski, and Einojuhani Rautavaara, among many others.
After an initial recording in 1995 on the Catalyst label of MacMillan's Seven Last Words from the Cross, Polyphony was signed to Hyperion, where their well-engineered albums, bringing out the choir’s pure sound, were popular from the beginning. The choir has often released two or three albums in a single year. In 2019, Polyphony released Miserere: Songs of Mercy and Redemption, a collection of short pieces by the popular choral composer Karl Jenkins. ~ James Manheim