The Britten Sinfonia’s Milton Court concert on Sunday 1 May saw an inventive and intense programme celebrate its leader Jacqueline Shave’s ten years with the band.
Bartok’s second string quartet opened the concert, a working made up of energy, seduction, and urgency. This was muscular playing right from the off, creating a visceral performance, in turn establishing high expectations for the rest of the concert. The Britten Sinfonia didn’t disappoint.
The world premiere of Elena Langer’s Story of Impossible Love – solo violin plus chamber orchestra – combined ravishing pastoral splashes with melodic and harmonic language reminiscent of Britten and, at times, Vaughan Williams. Langer’s musical language has a gritty realism to it, depicting a world slightly out of phase with that we regard as vaguely recognisable. At the same time, she maintains an immediacy to her writing, ensuring accessibility isn’t sacrificed. Haunting melodic lines in the oboe, chilling decorations in the piccolo, and seductive string textures underpinned what was a compelling work.
Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.27 – a deceptive work riven with musical complexities – saw the Britten Sinfonia’s breathtaking ensemble work come to the fore. Rapport was quickly established between soloist/director Benjamin Grosvenor and the Britten Sinfonia, the relationship between the two was clearly based on mutual respect. What emerged was a gratifyingly democratic relationship.
Throughout the first movement Grosvenor’s trademark fluid lines were delivered with poise, never sacrificing personality (watching his hands on the keyboard is a real delight). The arresting quality of the second movement’s subject demanded we stop and reflect and reminded us of the theme which seemed to string the concert together as a whole: the complexities and contradictions of life are difficult to fathom out, but we should at least try. Here, the acoustic revealed more than I’d previously understood about the work, not least the magical moment when the subject is played on the keyboard, first violins and the flute.
The third movement was taut but never fraught, with a precision in the keyboard that cast a spell over the auditorium. It was at this point that the Britten Sinfonia’s distinctive approaching to playing really shone: pulling out all of the over-arching lines that straddle the work as a whole, going beyond the shape of each melodic line and pointing to something altogether more fundamental. This was an incredibly special and personal interpretation contributed to by everyone on stage.
The Britten Sinfonia’s total engagement in the music they’re playing, already demonstrated in this concert, gave a hint to what we might expect during Strauss’ Metamorphosen. They didn’t disappoint. This is an unrelentingly work, shifting from sorrow and regret to warmth and beauty and stopping off at everything in between. The work’s deceptive tensile strength allowed for a robust interpretation. The same level of commitment and enthusiasm was present here as with everything else they’d played during the evening. This was an intoxicating performance, enveloping the audience with a strength with sought to reassure us that the vulnerability Strauss’s music had invoked in us wasn’t a weakness but a strength. The Britten Sinfonia played to us and cared for us at the same time in the Strauss.
The Britten Sinfonia are the classical music cognoscenti’s private passion. They’re also the classical music world’s PR dream. If ever there was a group who demonstrated how vital the UK classical music scene is to this country, it’s the Britten Sinfonia. The audience bore witness to some tremendous music making last night. This orchestra should never be overlooked, they are something to be incredibly proud of.
The Britten Sinfonia Milton Court concert featuring Benjamin Grosvenor will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 9 May 2016.