Wondrous performances of re-compositions by the Britten Sinfonia at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 68  – Auerbach, Corelli, Tippett, Richter/Vivaldi: Britten Sinfonia / Thomas Gould (violin/director). Royal Albert Hall, London, 6.9.2023. (JR)

Violinists Thomas Gould (left) and Miranda Dale (right) © BBC/Mark Allan

Lera AuerbachSogno di Stabat Mater
Corelli – Concerto Grosso, Op.6 No.2
Tippett Fantasia concertante on a Theme of Corelli
Max RichterRecomposed: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons

What intelligent programming by the Britten Sinfonia: two contemporary works and one from the 1950s based on and re-composing celebrated baroque masterpieces. The Royal Albert Hall was packed to the rafters for this performance at the BBC Proms by the Britten Sinfonia; surely a message to the politicians who have cut the orchestra’s Arts Council subsidy by an astonishing and baffling 100%, though allow me to revert to that at the very end of my review.

First, to the music. It began with a short piece by Soviet-born Austrian-American composer Lera Auerbach (also a poet and sculptor). Auerbach has 150 works to her name, including six symphonies, many string quartets and two operas. Auerbach composed Sogno di Stabat Mater at Gidon Kremer’s request, it being a shorter version of her Dialogues on Stabat Mater co-commissioned by the Bremen and Lucerne Festivals. It lasts only some twelve minutes but makes a fine impression. One hears elements of Pergolesi’s famous work. The opening is eerie, a nightmarish vision perhaps, first on the solo violin, then the vibraphone, which features prominently. It is all attractively ethereal and phantasmagoric. Thomas Gould, director of the orchestra (they have no conductor as such) impressed with his harmonics and Owen Gunnell was deft on the vibraphone; violist Clare Finnimore contributed skilfully.

Next up was a brief reminder of Corelli’s theme on which the Tippett work is based. The orchestra segued seamlessly from the Corelli into the Tippett, so for a few bars I was unsure which composer I was listening to. The Tippett is a difficult work for many, thickly textured and orchestral writing of risky density. The orchestra performed with aplomb and radiance, particularly the soloists, Thomas Gould and Miranda Dale (violins) and Caroline Dearnley (cello). The piece was consigned to obscurity after Sir Malcolm Sargent complained about the score’s difficulty and intellectuality; thankfully it was re-introduced by Yehudi Menuhin and Peter Hall used the work to accompany his film on English rural life, Akenfield. At times I wished for a more voluminous sound, from a larger string orchestra, but I am nit-picking. It was a glorious performance.

The Britten Sinfonia at the BBC Proms © BBC/Mark Allan

I suspect some in the audience had booked this concert on the basis that they would be hearing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. They would have heard part of it. Some, dare I say, may not even have noticed that they heard something different. Max Richter, German-born but educated in Britain, is one of our leading modern composers, his music rooted in Postmodern and Minimalist traditions. His work Recomposed: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons has been a huge success since its premiere by the Britten Sinfonia under violinist Daniel Hope. Gould was the mesmerising star of the show, showing his prowess, but the rest of the orchestra supported him perfectly. Adding to the enjoyment of the piece, the Albert Hall was plunged into darkness and light as the seasons progressed, red and yellow falling leaves in autumn, blue light, snowfall and bare trees in winter. Some of the lighting effects were projected like fireflies onto the audience, a real son et lumière. Not all Richter’s movements convince (the sudden stops take one aback, Bruckner the master here), but some are masterful. I was always wondering what would come next, it is a fascinating journey of discovery. Of course, no-one would want to be without the original.

A fizzy encore, the Danish String Quartet’s ‘Shine You No More’ (based on a John Dowland song of 1596) further lifted the spirits.

Next season the Britten Sinfonia perform at the Snape Maltings, in Norwich, Saffron Walden and in London: concerts include accompanying celebrated soprano Elizabeth Watts in song cycles by Finzi and others, another with Mahan Esfahani playing Bach; Jess Gillam on saxophone; the Mozart version of Handel’s Messiah; Taverner’s Protecting Veil and accompanying the New York City Ballet at Sadler’s Wells next March.

So this was a wondrous concert from an orchestra which has been in the musical headlines because of the shameful and incomprehensible decision by the Arts Council to completely withdraw its one million funding. This concert demonstrated the orchestra’s intelligent programming and high-quality music-making. The orchestra reaches part of England which other ensembles do not reach, the East of England. If you enjoyed reading my review and either heard the Prom on BBC Radio 3 or were at the Albert Hall, may I please urge you to make a donation, however small, to the orchestra’s finances either by e-mailing them or using this link.

John Rhodes

1 thought on “Wondrous performances of re-compositions by the Britten Sinfonia at the Proms”

  1. Funding point so well made John. I was in a box with an American couple who came for the Richter not the Britten Sinfonia. They were appalled when we told them about the Arts Council decision. ‘But why…’ they asked. ‘Such an intelligent programme, delivered with such enthusiasm. Isn’t that what’s missing so much nowadays?’ Point made.


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