Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Britten Sinfonia @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

9 February 2009

Something, or rather someone, was missing from this concert by the Britten Sinfonia: the conductor.

Their absence, however, was not the result of a cost cutting measure amidst the credit crunch, although orchestras do often decide whether to invest primarily in their conductors or their players.

Rather it was a choice determined by the programme’s pieces, and the role that both the orchestra’s leader and the piano soloist could perform within them. The result was three pieces where the tone and tempo of the playing were generated from the very heart of the orchestra, rather than imposed from “on high”.

The concert’s opener, Webern’s Five Movements, Op. 5, involved just the strings, and revealed Jacqueline Shave’s skills as both leader of the orchestra and de facto conductor. In the first movement there were several solo phrases that were then followed by full violins, and these enabled Shave to set the pace with her own playing whilst never feeling “dictatorial”. Indeed, it was noticeable how she enabled the lower strings to dominate the second movement, and how she did not dictate the tempo at which the cellos started the final movement, allowing them to enter in their own time.

For all of its contrasts between the pizzicato and largo passages, I still found the Webern too much on the same level throughout, but it was to the orchestra’s credit that it chose to contrast two pieces from the era of high Classicism with such a striking example of atonality.

In Haydn’s playful Symphony No. 8 in G the sound felt both rich and highly controlled. It was deemed performable without a conductor because it demands the type of spontaneity that can only really be generated from inside the orchestra anyway. The way in which the different sections listened to each other seemed almost tangible, and the orchestra’s layout was designed to aid the instruments’ responsiveness to each other, the wind being stationed further forward than usual. Overall, the performance felt a little overbearing and unrelenting, but the sound was undoubtedly precise, and the final movement beautifully rustic.

After the interval, Imogen Cooper was the soloist for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37. With every note she played demonstrating surety and grace, she did not overtly conduct the orchestra as Pierre-Laurent Aimard, for example, has done in the same position. She still dictated the overall pace, but felt like a player within the team, her highly intuitive approach to the music enabling the orchestra to follow effectively. Cooper’s playing was exquisite throughout, but for me the highlight came in the Largo where she seemed to bring both the music and time to a standstill as she played the descending notes.

Anyone searching for the type of sound more normally produced with the Haydn and Beethoven might have been disappointed by this concert, but the orchestra could hardly be blamed for such a listener’s inability to adjust to hearing a thicker, more intuitive sound. Indeed, not for the first time, the Britten Sinfonia succeeded in choosing a theme (music that demands no conductor), thinking it through carefully, and emerging the other side with a concert that was nothing short of captivating.

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