sun 26/05/2024

Bercken, Britten Sinfonia, Milton Court review - beleaguered ensemble shows its value | reviews, news & interviews

Bercken, Britten Sinfonia, Milton Court review - beleaguered ensemble shows its value

Bercken, Britten Sinfonia, Milton Court review - beleaguered ensemble shows its value

A high-spirited programme combining old and new music hits the spot

Daria van den Bercken and the Britten Sinfonia at Milton Court © Shoël Stadlen

In the kerfuffle over the proposed decimation of English National Opera, the BBC Singers and the BBC orchestras, the removal of all Arts Council England’s funding for the Britten Sinfonia has slipped a bit under the radar, but is no less egregious.

This 30-year-old ensemble seems to be doing everything to tick ACE boxes: regionally based in the East of England (an area not oversupplied with music), a full programme of community and educational work, a young composers development scheme – all alongside the main ensemble giving thoughtfully-programmed concerts at the highest standard.

The last two of these aspects were very much on display last night at Milton Court in London, a programme then being repeated in Saffron Walden and Norwich. Playing without a conductor, the group was led by Thomas Gould from the violin and Daria van den Bercken from the piano, with the thread that held everything together being Bach.

So it was fitting that we started with the fifth Brandenburg Concerto. This had Gould and flautist Thomas Hancox as soloists, with van den Bercken on the piano (the three pictured below), starting in the role of accompanist before elbowing her way to the fore in what she described as “the first piano concerto”, the beginning of a path that ultimately led to Rach 3. It is unusual to hear Bach ensemble music with a piano, and some people would reject it out of hand. I found it sounded a bit strange as continuo, but was perfect when the extraordinary cadenza at the end of the first movement emerged, Bercken’s lightning-fast ribbons of notes flowing like melted butter, and we could see in this Bach a glimpse of the concerto’s future as a form. Britten Sinfonia concertNext was a premiere from Dutch composer Mathilde Wantenaar (b.1993). We heard her new Rhapsody for piano and strings, 14 minutes of music that wasn’t profound, but didn’t aspire to be, aiming at “playful” and “fun”. It was certainly both of those. Its episodic form, driven from the piano, called to mind Rhapsody in Blue, but rooted in a folky modality where Gershwin used jazz. There were nods to Bach in the fugue that emerged in the latter parts – bassist Benjamin Russell showing fleet fingers – and van den Bercken’s playing was perky and full of character.

After the interval we heard a wind quintet by David John Roche, composed as part of the Magnum Opus scheme, supporting early-career composers. Sentimental Espionage Music was also a lot of fun, with ingenious scoring and a real brio, better perhaps in its sparkling fast music than in the slower central panel, but convincing as a whole. Calling to mind at different points Jean Françaix and Malcolm Arnold, it also found space for a reference to the theme from Inspector Gadget.

Both the Wantenaar and Roche pieces shared something of the character of Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks concerto, but to say that the older piece towered over them is not to disparage, but to acknowledge one of Stravinsky’s most incredible creations. Composed in the year when his first wife died, his daughter died and he nearly died, there is not a hint of mortality in this delightfully alive music. There is an obvious debt to Bach in the scoring, in the shapes of the melodies, and in the fughettas that abound, but it is one of the most unmistakeably Stravinskian pieces, in  its wit, ironic poise and unpredictable rhythm.

It is a properly hard piece to do without conductor, and perhaps as a result the tempos in the first and last movements were a touch on the safe side. But the ensemble was very tight, not just in the tricksy fast bits, but in the exposed string chorales at the end of the first two movements. The almost Bartókian night music of the second movement was beautifully hazy, with bassoonist Sarah Burnett and Thomas Hancox enjoying their spotlight moments. The third movement had a pleasingly menacing opening, which never lost momentum as it hurtled through an irresistible last two minutes.

To finish we had an early-ish Haydn symphony, No.22, nicknamed “The Philosopher” for its weighty first movement. This was a revelation, Haydn meeting Bach in an unlikely encounter. The steady tread of the cellos and basses has a violin melody thrown over the top, the horns then biting through the texture like the chorale tune in a Bach fantasia. It was a delight, as was the rest of the symphony, back on more familiar Haydn territory, but played with an unaffected lightness of touch that was a pleasure to hear.


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