Tuesday 10 March 2009

Britten Sinfonia, 10 March 2009

West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge

Purcell (ed. Britten) – Chacony in G minor
Adam Walaciński – Little Music of Autumn (British premiere)
John Woolrich – Quiddities
Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht, op.4

Members of the Britten Sinfonia:
Jacqueline Shave, Thomas Gould (violins)
Martin Outram, Claire Finnimore (violas)
Caroline Dearnley, Ben Chappell (violoncelli)
Nicholas Daniel (oboe/English horn)

This fourth and final Britten Sinfonia lunchtime concert of the 2008-9 season perforce followed a slightly different format from its predecessors. The pattern of having an established British composer curate a programme of chamber and ensemble music, including a work of his own and a commissioned work by a young composer, was disturbed by illness on the part of Pawel Mykietyn. Instead of his envisaged new work, we heard the British premiere of Krakow-based Adam Walaciński’s 1986 work, Little Music of Autumn. This seemed especially apt, given that the first concert of each tour has been given in Krakow, the second following, as again in this case, in Cambridge. Walaciński was unknown to me prior to this concert and the programme did not give much away beyond his year of birth, 1928. According to Grove, he started out as a violinist and was serving as chairman of the Krakow section of the Polish Composers’ Union at the time of composition. He has been a lecturer and professor in theory at Krakow University. A little further research suggests an equitable division between concert and film or theatre music in his œuvre. Scored for oboe, violin, viola, and ’cello, the work is described by Walaciński as ‘a small romantic piece written in the aleatoric technique. The oboe is the leading instrument – like a solitary wanderer against the background of a coloured landscape painted by whispering strings.’ This seemed to me an apt description, although without a score it was impossible to discern which elements were aleatory, or in what sense. Nicholas Daniel’s opening oboe solo, haunting in tone, was after a little while joined by shimmering, tremulous strings. Sounds of Bartók-like night music and other ‘effects’ joined the atmospheric mix; one might well have guessed that this was a composer of stage and film music. The oboe remained soulful and lyrical throughout, for which considerable credit should be given to Daniel’s performance.

Woolrich’s Quiddities was also evocative of a nocturnal landscape. Indeed, the composer had written that this work might alternatively have been titled ‘Lake Greifen’, after a short story by Robert Walser, in which the narrator swims in a small hidden lake and wonders what a darkened lake, under a sky full of stars, will be like. Commissioned for Nicholas Daniel and the Britten Sinfonia in 2005, the work received a well-deserved revival here, although it was my first hearing. It is scored for string quintet plus English horn. The arresting opening, with two ominous ’cellos playing arco, set against aggressive pizzicato violins and viola, prepares the way for the English horn’s entry and also presents thematic material for subsequent development. The work is sometimes elegiac yet never remotely sentimental, possessed of a rhythmic drive realised here with admirable precision. Considerable use is made of pizzicato strings, often with real menace. It is difficult to conceive of a superior performance, given the richness of string tone, the keenly modulated lyricism from Daniel, and the sense of a narrative that led us towards the piece’s uncertain ending. Perhaps there is another story yet to be told.

The concert had opened with one of the very finest works by England’s greatest composer, Henry Purcell. The authenticke coven has pretty much ensured that, nowadays, Purcell’s music is off bounds for modern instruments. It was therefore especially welcome not only to hear the G minor Chacony at all, given here in Britten’s excellent edition, but to hear a performance that treated the work as music rather than as an archaeological exhibit. I find it difficult to imagine that any performance will match Britten’s own recording, with the English Chamber Orchestra, but this one, for string quartet rather than the ECO’s string orchestra, was a splendid modern-day contender. Britten’s dynamic shading was relished, though never exaggerated. The work’s structural contours were apparent for all to hear, as, every bit as importantly, was its tragic emotional import. Jacqueline Shave could fairly be said to have led the other players, for this is not in any sense a Classical quartet, yet, as in a small orchestra, all players and their instruments contributed to the cumulative progress of a piece at least as dramatic as its counterparts in King Arthur and Dioclesian.

Verklärte Nacht, in its original sextet version, is of course another work evocative of night and landscape. The last time I had heard it in concert was a few years ago from members of the Staatskapelle Berlin. Whilst there is naturally no gainsaying the richness of tone of players from Daniel Barenboim’s band, this fine performance from the Britten Sinfonia perhaps had the dramatic edge. The opening was taken very slowly, impressing an insistent D minor – that most beloved tonality for the Second Viennese School – upon our consciousnesses and therefore preparing us for the tonal excursions on which the composer would lead us. The music eventually opened out into a full, post-Brahmsian sound, but what was perhaps most impressive about this performance was its almost Wagnerian musico-dramatic thrust and flexibility. Brahms’s influence will always be keenly felt in this work; it was good, however, to be reminded that Wagner’s example contributes more than Tristan-esque harmony. At times, the lines sounded almost vocal; the man and woman of Richard Dehmel’s poem might have been singing to one another. Such was the responsiveness of the players to each other, however, that this clearly remained chamber music. Not that this precluded tone-painting; if anything, it was enhanced. If one shut one’s eyes, one could almost see a moonlit forest. There were moments of truly transfigured stillness, which yet remained clearly integrated into the work’s structure. This was a late-Romantic rather than an expressionistic view of Schoenberg’s sextet: a valid choice, not least in the context of the rest of Woolrich’s programme, and a choice realised with great success.

This concert was recorded for subsequent broadcast on BBC Radio 3.