Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Britten Sinfonia @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

9 February 2011

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room (Photo: Pete Woodhead)

I challenge anyone to name a slicker and more impressive chamber ensemble than the Britten Sinfonia throw in their ever-challenging and innovative programming, and youre guaranteed a first-class musical experience.

Their dedication to English music both old and new is second to none, and tonights programme wove together song and string music from the 17th to the 20th century, with Purcell as a common thread throughout. An energetic, driven Overture and Rondeau from Abdelazer (perhaps a touch too driven I felt some of the filigree was rushed through and not given time to be heard) was countered and lightened by an airy rendition of Tippetts Little Music; what was key to the Sinfonias performance were not so much the Purcellian roots of the work (incisive rhythms, complex counterpoint) as the inventive textures that Tippett crafts from a string-only ensemble.

In many ways Finzis Dies natalis was the most quintessentially English work on the programme, with its unabashed folk-sounding melodies and harmonies and lyrical treatment of Thomas Trahernes rapturous poetry. Mark Padmore has had a long and fruitful relationship with the Britten Sinfonia, often combining the roles of soloist and director, and this was yet another masterly performance for this partnership: his voice contains all the suppleness, expressiveness and tonal colours that one could ever wish for, and his telling of his wondrous surroundings was utterly compelling. The rich palette of sound found by the Sinfonia to support and envelop and accentuate was breathtaking at times, beautiful at others, and always 100% right.

John Woolrich was commissioned to orchestrate three of Tippetts arrangements of Purcell songs from Orpheus Britannicus for the Britten Sinfonias tour of which this concert was a part. Before this, we heard his revision of his own Another Staircase Overture, inspired by Purcells A Staircase Overture, a dark, brooding work which showed the Sinfonias viola and cello sections at their best.

The Purcell reworkings posed Padmore his only problems all night sitting rather low in his range and occluding the natural brightness of the voice but a more captivating performance of these songs I havent heard in a long while. Woolrichs inventive arrangements made me smile, and the Sinfonia were sensitive to all of Padmores nuances, but I couldnt help but think that Tippett got it exactly right first time around, and that perhaps a completely original response to Purcells original material would have been more rewarding.

To finish, Waltons Sonata for Strings, an expansion and revision by the composer himself of his second string quartet. This shows a side of Walton far removed from his more famous film and orchestral music, bursting with rhythmic life and unexpected interruptions, but still lyrical and tender. In many ways, it is the perfect showcase for the Britten Sinfonia, and, indeed, it was the highlight of the concert. Discipline, virtuosity, depth and variety of tone-colour, all the while accompanied by smiles and obvious enjoyment: the hallmarks of a world-class ensemble, and the hallmarks of the Britten Sinfonia.

Further details of Queen Elizabeth Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk

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