Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Britten Sinfonia/Wigglesworth, 20 January 2009

West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge

Knussen – Songs without Voices: four pieces for eight instrumentalists, op.26 (1991-2)
Britten – Phantasy Quartet (1932)
Ryan Wigglesworth – Tenebrae (2008, British premiere)
Johann Strauss, arr. Schoenberg – Kaiserwalzer (1889, arr. 1925)

Britten Sinfonia
Jacqueline Shave (violin/director)
Miranda Dale (violin)
Martin Outram (viola)
Caroline Deamley (’cello)
Emer McDonough (flute)
Nicholas Daniel (oboe/English horn)
Joy Farrall (clarinet)
Stephen Bell (horn)
John Lenehan (piano)
Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor)

This lunchtime concert was the second in the world premiere tour of Ryan Wigglesworth’s Tenebrae, so did not quite mark the work’s first performance, that honour having been bestowed upon Krakow two days earlier. Scored for two violins, viola, ’cello, flute, English horn, French horn, and piano, it was conducted by Wigglesworth himself. Nicholas Daniel proved an able advocate for the opening English horn solo, a feature of the work which provided a connection with the fourth of the Oliver Knussen pieces and, at a slight remove, the Britten quartet for oboe, violin, viola, and ’cello. There were dark shadows (tenebrae) but also menacing life – or should that simply be obscured life? – emerging from within those shadows. The piano part, performed commandingly by John Lenehan, punctuated such outbursts, as did telling silences. Wigglesworth clearly has a keen ear for harmony – and also for harmonic rhythm, the two not always going together. I liked the dramatic flow, perhaps in some sense related – but here I am merely speculating – to the Tenebrae Service or to the psalms recited therein? At any rate, no specific programme was required; this haunting and impressive piece can stand perfectly well upon its own merits.

Oliver Knussen’s Songs without voices had opened the programme, itself put together by Knussen. Scored for violin, viola, ’cello, flute, clarinet, English horn, French horn, and piano, these four miniatures once again received a fine performance under Wigglesworth’s baton. The first, Fantastico (Winter’s Foil) was almost literally buzzing with life and beautifully melodious too. In a sense, Schoenberg met Ravel, or the febrile combined with the sensuous; but this is not to imply anything other than Knussen’s own voice. With the second piece, Maestoso (Prairie Sunset), the music both became more angular and appeared to strain towards a broader (prairie?) canvas. Copland did not seem so very far away, especially in the stillness leading to something more ecstatic. The very short third piece, Leggiero (First Dandelion), was similar in some respects to the first, albeit with a very strong rhythmic profile and even more pronounced ‘French’ sonorities. These three songs, we learned from Knussen’s programme note, were each ‘a complete poem ... “set” syllable for instruments in the course of a movement’. The final song, however, is owed ‘to a more private lyrical impulse’, an English horn melody he wrote upon hearing of the death of Andrzej Panufnik. Nicholas Daniel’s opening invocation signalled a considerably darker piece, a lament even. His instrument was joined by the piano and subsequently the rest of the ensemble, but remained the principal voice throughout. That said, fantastic flute writing, a ruminative clarinet part, and more Romantic tones from strings and the horn also made their presence felt, bringing this distinguished work to a moving conclusion.

Britten’s Phantasy Quartet was obviously not conducted; nor would the final work be. Here, the relationship of Daniel’s oboe to the three string players helped mark out the work’s form with admirable clarity. To begin with, the oboe sounded very much as a solo instrument set against a bloc of three strings. As time went on, that initial distinction broke down somewhat – both in score and performance – and the stringed instruments acquired more clearly defined solo voices of their own. There was a pleasing depth to Martin Outram’s viola and a recognisably ‘English pastoral’ ecstasy to the high ’cello part, well projected by Caroline Dearnley. The section sat out by the oboe enabled these voices and that of Jacqueline Shave’s violin to develop further, before Daniel once again could spin his phantastical line, setting the scene for the final ’cello pizzicato subsiding into nothingness.

The only disappointment lay in the performance of Schoenberg’s transcription of Johann Strauss’s Kaiserwalzer. It is a delight, of course, and I have to admit preferring it to the original; less whipped cream allows one better to taste what lies beneath. Written for the Pierrot ensemble, plus second violin and viola, it should breathe the air of Viennese café society. On this occasion, the rhythmically insistent opening, lacking in rubato and Schwung, set an all-too-serious and often plodding precedent for what was to come. Strauss – and Schoenberg too – should waltz, not trudge. There were also occasional minor lapses in ensemble, something I had not noticed at all in the other works performed. Jacqueline Shave on first violin and Joy Farrall on clarinet seemed to be enjoying themselves but the other players would have benefited from smiling more, even if only internally. It was all rather effortful.

The concert has been recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

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