BBC Proms 2016 / 40: Beethoven 8 and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1

Beethoven’s Symphony No.8 always takes me by surprise. Eight is the symphony I’m most unfamiliar with. It’s unusual in comparison to what has gone before. Musical ideas dart from one thing to another, speeds too. Textures are varied. It is advanced Beethoven, more so in my head than the choral symphony that follows it. It’s a work that demands repeat listens even if it doesn’t necessarily invite them.

Britten Sinfonia’s performance under the direction of Thomas Ades makes the process of revisiting the work less of chore, more of a pleasure. Their string playing under the leadership of Thomas Gould is taught, the articulation breathtakingly precise. Listen carefully for the gaps in between the notes – that’s what elevates this perception.

In the first movement it’s the earthy string textures that underpin smooth woodwind legatos that really give me goose bumps. The second movement is a strange affair musically, sort of balletic in places, in others almost too imitative of Haydn. Pleasant yet deceptively complex, there’s something about its playfulness that is just a little bit smug for my liking.

The Britten Sinfonia breathes life into the third – which could easily end up feeling a leaden – with a heart-warming lilt and equally sweet woodwind lines. The final movement is a rip-roaring demonstration of even faster articulation in the strings and woodwind, the pace of which intensifies as we head towards the symphony’s inevitable end. A bravura performance that illustrated something the Britten Sinfonia is often taken for granted for: its stamina.

This was the third time I’d heard this performance. I listened to it live on my way home after a walk back to Waterloo station, the next on my walk back into work this morning. These are the best time to concentrate on the performances and, to take my mind off the walking and the work that needs to be done. For one reason or another, I’ve found myself able to focus on the now a whole more easily when I combine the two, and focus on the actual work when I get to the office.

It feels like a number of different things have fallen into place over the past week or so, all of it with a constant soundtrack of classical music filling in the void.

The Prokofiev Classical Symphony was the other work I listened on the walk in this morning. The pain in my elbow appeared to have subsided (after I’d visited the doctor’s surgery again this morning and received a month’s worth of anti-inflammatories).

This and the fact that I had managed to really focus in on the music meant the inevitable middle-aged self-absorbed thing had started to occur as I walked along: I was punctuating loud chords with a clenched fist in the left hand, and the beginnings of delicate phrases with a forefinger in the right. I’d always considered people doing air-conducting as the ultimate kind of pretentious wannabe – a failed musician who was still clinging on to vague notions of being on the podium. Now it appears I’m doing it too. And, I don’t especially care either.

The Prokofiev is a satisfying work that, unlike the Beethoven, does invite repeat listens. It’s brimming with youthful exuberance. It’s clever in its tidiness and efficiency, but isn’t self-absorbed. It’s also sophisticated kind of pastiche in a way that transforms Britten’s Piano Concerto is a just a little too end-of-the-pier in comparison. But more than that, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony was my first introduction to the neo-classical style – an imitative yet respectful nod to a period of composition with just the right amount of the unexpected melodic and harmonic invention to keep me alert every time I hear it.

At the end of a demanding programme, the Britten Sinfonia didn’t let me down. This was a real highlight from this year.


Review: Mozart Piano 27 / Strauss ‘Metamorphosen’ / Benjamin Grosvenor / Britten Sinfonia / Milton Court

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.

Britten Sinfonia Piers Tattersall Queen Elizabeth Hall

I do so like my classical music concerts to have a bit of jeopardy thrown in. It adds to the excitement.

Tonight’s concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall features the Britten Sinfonia playing Schubert’s Death and the Maiden and a world premiere of a work written by Piers Tattersall, called Kreisler.

The jeopardy in the event surrounds one of the band’s oboists Dominic Kelly who nearly a month ago left his oboe on the back seat of a cab in South London. A leaflet campaign ensued. Journalists were called. Copy was written. But did he find his oboe?

One presumes Dominic has got a spare kicking around somewhere or that he could ask a friend if he could borrow one. That said, I do like the idea of picturing him turning up at the QEH and pleading with the orchestral manager that ‘it really is the truth, I’ve lost my oboe – look, it’s even in the newspaper’.

I can’t get along to the concert as I’m busy packing for my holiday, but I plan to listen live on the radio.