Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Britten Sinfonia and Elizabeth Watts review – a captivating evening of music for string orchestra and voice

20 October 2023

The soprano joins the string section to present a cleverly curated set of contrasting works at Milton Court.

Milton Court

Milton Court (Photo: Em Davis)

Arguably, the most unexpected blow to musical organisations in Arts Council England’s 2022 grant allocations was the 100% cut to that of Britten Sinfonia. It seemed to run counterintuitive to the strategy of redistributing money from London to the provinces: one would have thought that the orchestra, based in Cambridge, with a heartland in East Anglia, met the ‘levelling up’ criteria solidly. The group, though, has soldiered on thanks to the generous support of individuals and corporate sponsors, and, as Friday evening’s concert (arriving at the Barbican’s Milton Court after performances in Saffron Walden and Norwich) demonstrated, are still performing at the top of their game, delivering nuanced, intelligent and technically accomplished accounts. The addition to the mix of works for string orchestra of Elizabeth Watts, whose creamy, opulent voice makes the perfect complement to the rich timbres, was a stroke of genius.

Notwithstanding the top-class names involved, on paper, this wasn’t a concert to fill a hall, and, sadly, it didn’t. Three pieces by living composers (two of them world premières); Elgar’s early work Serenade for Strings; and Dies Natalis by Gerald Finzi – perhaps the most neglected of the English Pastoralists, whose quirky harmonies sometimes summon a grey March rather than a golden September: Eric Ravilious rather than, say, Butterworth’s Samuel Palmer. Non-attendees, though, missed a treat, as the pieces were expertly collated to exhibit the contrasting colours possible from a seemingly limited palette, and were all given outstanding accounts.

Ryan Latimer’s Pound of Cure is a perfect concert opener. Like a motorbike on a cold morning, it eventually achieves its continuous busy clamour through a series of coughs and stutters of increasing length. It’s a piece packed full of syncopated energy – part jazz inspired, part minimalist, all excitement (some of the pizzicato passages were so robust that one feared broken strings) – and its high-octane whoosh left this listener mightily impressed at the intuitive co-ordination skills of the ensemble (who perform without a conductor, working merely on nods and glances from their leader Thomas Gould), and instantly wanting more.

“…delivering nuanced, intelligent and technically accomplished accounts”

Finzi’s solo cantata Dies Natalis, a setting of Thomas Traherne’s texts, rarely gets an outing, and when it does, it’s usually sung by a tenor. Elizabeth Watts’ luminous account, though, brought a fresh perspective to the work, and delineated the work’s shifting moods with surety, giving us a glorious tiptoeing pianissimo over the diaphanous string tone of ‘The corn was orient…’, an electrical rendering of ‘glittering and sparkling’, power and adamantine brilliance on the high notes of ‘The Rapture’, and a radiant lyricism in ‘The Salutation’.

Dobrinka Tabakova’s Barbican Glade was written for the Barbican’s 40th anniversary, and it’s an unusual work – a trio of violin, viola and cello intoning deceptively simple unison pentatonic passages that are surrounded by more lush, throbbing underlay from the other strings. The orchestra (who co-commissioned it) gave the work an intelligent account, bringing to the fore its uncomfortable, slightly spikey moments, as well as allowing itself a small amount of wallowing for the big, lush, homophonic interludes.

Of all the works presented Richard Blackford’s première Songs of Nadia Anjuman was the least comfortable. The Afghani poet studied in secret under the Taliban, and was eventually murdered by her husband for being ‘unwomanly’. Her poems (in translation) conjure images of the night, the moon, an imaginary lover, and a desire to be free. Blackford’s settings, while tonal, draw obviously on 20th century Modernism, and are full of crunchy string writing and angular vocal lines – all of which suit the texts well. Watts and the orchestra gave the five poems excellent performances, that brought us, in ‘Turmoil’, the gentle breeze of overlapping string lines at the opening and an angry, disturbed flourish at the close; pecking vocal lines and pizzicato underlay in ‘I Wish’; gauzy string chords and a slow intense vocal lines to summon the dreaminess of ‘Memories of Light Blue’; busy, overlapping chords and some appropriately stratospheric singing in ‘Fly Freely’; and intense string gestures with some more perfectly produced high vocal lines in ‘Useless’.

Elgar’s Serenade for Strings has little of his later Wagner inspired solidity about it. It’s a cleverly worked piece of which Elgar was justifiably proud, but it’s as light, delicate and mannered as a lace handkerchief dropped in a Victorian drawing room. One felt, here, as though the orchestra had simply absorbed the character of the work, and needed virtually no reference to their scores to perform it. Gesture, a spontaneously accurate attention to Elgar’s fussy dynamic markings and more of that top-notch co-ordination made for a performance that was full of insouciance, from the organic opening that felt plucked out of the air, through the Parma-violet-scented chromaticism of the second movement to the cheery saunter of the third.

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