Sally Beamish Premiere Echoes Spirit of Britten

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Elgar, Britten, Beamish, Pärt: Lawrence Power (Viola),The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, / Stephanie Gonley (leader),The Turner Sims Concert Hall, University of Southampton, Southampton, 9.5.2013 (NB).

Elgar: Introduction and Allegro Op.47
Britten: Lachrymae Op.48a
Beamish: Variations on a theme of Benjamin Britten – World Premiere
Pärt: Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten Britten: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge Op.10

The Turner Sims Concert Hall on the campus of Southampton University pulled off something of a coup by hosting the World Premiere of Sally Beamish’s Variations on a theme of Benjamin Britten. The concert was the first of five performances by the ever-excellent Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; there are three more over the next three days culminating, after a gap of eleven days with the London premiere on May 23rd at the Cadogan Hall.

The concert oozed care and attention to detail from the structuring of the programme itself to virtuosic excellence of the players. There is a double celebration to mark here; the ASMF celebrates – amazingly – its 55th anniversary this year and of course it is also the centenary of Britten’s birth. Indeed the spirit of Britten hung over the whole concert. Even the work with which it opened, Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro has a link – Britten conducted a staggeringly fine recording with the English Chamber Orchestra in the late 60s. The ASMF have a performing tradition of not using conductors, being directed instead by the leader – here Stephanie Gonley. From the first notes the trade-mark characteristics of this ensemble were immediately clear: a phenomenal weight of sound considering there were just twenty players on-stage, every part played with the panache and personality of a soloist and collective virtuosity to spare.

Principal Viola Robert Smissen made a particular impression with a lovingly phrased statement of Elgar’s “Welsh tune” and indeed his playing was an especial delight throughout the evening. This is a piece all British string players know well but that does not make it any easier to bring off. Elgar rather gleefully called the central fugato passage “a devil of a fugue”; played here at a cracking pace it was superbly clean and articulated. – one might say almost too neat! The benefit of having a small but crack unit of players is the complete clarity with which Elgar’s complex textures register. Personally, I prefer this and similar works played with a string section of symphonic proportions to give a sheer bulk and scale to the sound a smaller group cannot achieve no matter how fine. It is important to note though that the Turner Sims Hall, with its expanses of exposed wood and brick, provides an excellent acoustic for strings. My sole criticism was that this was a performance that lacked a single ‘big’ personality to mould it. The execution was as fine as one could wish to hear but the interpretation was rather generalised; there was nothing to offend but nothing, technical brilliance aside, to make one sit up and think.

Certainly that was the area that benefited most in the second work which featured viola soloist Lawrence Power. This was Britten’s Lachrymae – a substantial but relatively unfamiliar work. It was originally written in 1948 for viola and piano but not orchestrated for strings until the last year of Britten’s life in 1976. This picked up the concert’s variation thread neatly by taking John Dowland’s song “Come, heavy sleep” and weaving it into a strangely troubled and dark score. One wonders if by 1976 the sleep that Britten had in mind was for all eternity. Power is a superbly expressive player and here the small – in fact reduced still further – string group allowed him to play with a chamber music-like intimacy without any loss of intensity. He also provided the musical focal point which a soloist – by definition – must provide. So quiet at times in the skeletal first variant were the shuddering string figures that the howling unseasonal winds outside the hall added to the atmosphere. This must be a very tricky score to perform conductorless; Britten reduces his writing much of the time to fragmentary gestures flickering through the orchestra. This was a very fine performance which by the time it has been shaken down over the next couple of weeks will have become a truly great one. I particularly enjoyed the sense of fantasy Power brought to the work which seemed wholly appropriate whether in the skittering moto perpetuo section or the solemnly passionate passage that followed. Dowland’s song is so submerged into this near-expressionist writing that its final emergence – hushed and reverent – gives this sombre and dark score the tranquillity and peace it has been seeking.

Which brought us to the work around which the concert was focused. In her charmingly unaffected and open pre-concert talk Sally Beamish discussed the origins and influences of the work. Originally planned some three years ago from the outset it was intended to partner the Britten Frank Bridge Variations both practically and spiritually. Beamish’s ties with the ASMF are long and strong. For many years she was a member of the viola section and before that her mother played violin. So not only does she have an extremely detailed knowledge and insight into the music the orchestra plays but she has the all important practical understanding of what “works” for string players as a whole – and this group in particular. It is hard to put a value on that kind of knowledge and experience which cannot be learnt from books or in lectures – indeed she went as far as to say that she learnt her compositional craft through her playing. Her talk provided some fascinating insights. She spoke of Neville Marriner – the orchestra’s founder – valuing the contributions musical and interpretative of every player so she enshrined in the work a sense of democratic equality of writing with every player allowed – and expected! – to shine. She was very open with her struggle “to repress Britten’s voice”. This she explained was because she wanted to avoid writing a simple pastiche but having chosen her theme – part of the “Sunday Morning” sea interlude from Peter Grimes – she realised that she had chosen something so intrinsically Brittenesque that she had to consciously avoid writing in that style. Likewise, the benefit of knowing all the string repertoire brings with it a “weight of precedence” to use Beamish’s own term. All of which meant that she found the composition took a lot longer to achieve than she had initially expected.

It is therefore important to state immediatelyfore that none of this ‘struggle’ is audible in the finished work. Beamish also mentioned that although the players had been sent their individual parts some weeks ago the first group rehearsal (and indeed Beamish’s first chance to hear the work in the flesh) was just the day before the concert. This goes to underline what a remarkable group of players this ensemble is. It would be foolish not to pretend that minor wrinkles in ensemble and interpretative detail won’t be ironed out over the coming weeks but this was a mightily impressive first performance. Beamish echoes the structure of the Britten-Bridge variations by creating, in effect, a suite of dances in variation form. The homage goes further in that Britten’s Moto Perpetuo is mirrored by Beamish’s Toccata; both have an introduction before the theme is stated and both close with a Passacaglia [the Beamish] and Finale and a Fugue and Finale – the Britten. Once you acknowledge the act of homage I think it is important to consider the new work in its own right. The Britten is one of the great string works by any composer of any country of the last century so an excessvely picky “compare and contrast” between the Beamish and the Britten is probably neither fair or appropriate.

Beamish’s new work is instantly appealing, attractive and I would say bound to enter the repertoire of similar groups looking to expand their repertoire. There are seven variations framed by the aforementioned Introduction/Theme and Passacaglia/Finale. Given that the whole work runs to around eighteen minutes it can be seen that none of these sections is overly long but Beamish skilfully weaves them together so they stay coherent and easily identifiable while flowing from one to another. I am not familiar with Beamish’s compositional style so I cannot say how typical a work this is. Certain characteristics stand out. Not surprisingly she understands the full range of technical and expressive effects that strings have at their disposal. Widely spaced melodic lines are juxtaposed against finger-twisting rhythmic cells – the 4th Variation Waltz makes particularly effective use of this. Humour is on display too – the Toccata (Variation 5) has the feel of a modern square dance while at the same time echoing Britten’s Les Illuminations – a work that Beamish singles out as her favourite Britten string-based work. But there is profundity too – in the Variation 6 Requiem the lamenting melody is led by her favoured former colleagues in the violas with a beautiful but brief solo from Stephanie Gonley providing the emotional centre of the work. Radiant chords in the final variation Paean ushered in the Passacaglia which built inexorably upwards from the double-basses leading ultimately to an assertive restatement of the opening theme and the work’s positive conclusion. The attentive audience in the hall gave both the work and the composer a warm and appreciative reception. I am sure that this is a work that will be performed and enjoyed by players and audiences alike for many years.

The second half of the concert opened with Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. Unfortunately this suffered the fate of being the ‘easy’ piece in a tricky programme. Of course, at this level of playing everything was all present and correct but it was a painfully prosaic performance lacking shape or direction. Overtly a very simple piece this was a performance that proved that more is needed to give such works the intensity and emotional impact they can have. Balances within the group in particular need to be addressed here as well as a much subtler dynamic graduation.

Just how good this orchestra is was amply exhibited by the quite superb rendition of the Britten Frank Bridge Variations that closed the concert. Clearly, this is a very familiar work to these players; it has a performing tradition the Beamish has yet to establish, and the numerous technical and ensemble hurdles seem as nothing. And that is before you consider what an absurdly confident – one might almost say brash – composition this is. Britten sketched the work in a fortnight. Not only that, it was written to be performed at the 1937 Salzburg Festival – a meeting of the great and the good of Classical Music enough to quail the stoutest heart – let alone a twenty-four year old. Yet from the opening gesture it is all swaggering bravura and limitless confidence. Right down to the parodying of a Viennese waltz and the effortlessly brilliant yet infectiously memorable Aria italiana. I have to admit to not being a devoted admirer of all or indeed much of Britten’s work but this performance brought it home that without a shadow of a doubt he was touched by genius. Where elsewhere in the concert I had been less than wholly convinced by the interpretative element in these variations every element came together to provide an utterly compelling experience. From the brusquely powerful threatening March to the swirling Moto Perpetuo there was a sense of aptness and rightness. An excellent end to a fascinating and involving concert.

A worthy celebration of the two anniversaries therefore. Clearly the current generation of ASMF players are staying true to the high standards of musicianship and collective virtuosity of their predecessors – what a demanding concert for them but one executed with great brilliance. Likewise, one of the more imaginatively constructed programmes to celebrate Britten’s anniversary. Beamish might have felt his spirit watching over her shoulder – but he was smiling I am sure. A concert to catch over the coming two weeks.

Nick Barnard