mon 20/09/2021

Mark Padmore, Britten Sinfonia, Queen Elizabeth Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Mark Padmore, Britten Sinfonia, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Mark Padmore, Britten Sinfonia, Queen Elizabeth Hall

A concert of English music that cast aside chintz for neon brights

It was Leonard Bernstein who declared of English music that it was “too much organ voluntary in Lincoln Cathedral, too much Coronation in Westminster Abbey, too much lark ascending, too much clodhopping on the fucking village green”. Fey, whimsical and faintly patterned with chintz – English music doesn’t always get the best press. In the hands of the Britten Sinfonia however, it defies any notion of pastel prettiness, stepping out in only the feistiest and most glorious Technicolor.

Any half-decent orchestra can start a note convincingly – just watch your local amateur symphony in action of a Saturday night. Far rarer are those who can finish one. Beginning a note is an act of precision; finishing it is one of interpretation. Taking musicianship and interpretative autonomy to extraordinary levels, the Britten Sinfonia and their leader, Jacqueline Shave, last night proved their quality. Stewarding and shaping each phrase into the next, playfully alive to the ironic possibilities of articulation as well as the lyric, they shaped a programme around Finzi’s Dies Natalis – that most quintessential of English works.

Balancing Tippett’s familiar realisations of Purcell songs with Tippett’s own Little Music and Purcell’s Overture and Rondeau from Abdelazer (better known as the theme for Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra), the organic relationship between 20th-century English music and its Baroque forebears was elegantly explored.

A true gamut of technique, we moved immediately from the crisp period swagger of the opening Purcell to the broader gestures of Tippett’s Prelude and Fugue. With exposed organum-like intervals and frenzied portamentos, Little Music is a work that sets off as if for the battle scene of a 20th Century Fox Roman epic, but soon gets distracted by the pastoral delights of the Palatine meadows (a loose-limbed fugue) and never quite makes it to the action. With fizzing string textures rivalling for supremacy, the whole had an intent that kept whimsy at bay, even in the throwaway flightiness of the close.

The second-half counterbalance came in the form of Walton’s Sonata for Strings, a late re-orchestration and reworking by the composer of his String Quartet in A minor. Aggressive unisons and snappish rhythmic exchanges jostle up against a lyric impulse that refuses to quit – above all the Sonata is an exercise in textural contrast. A call to arms for Shave and her musicians, there was clarity to even the fussiest of passages, and the syncopated gambits of the closing Allegro Molto had the whole hall twitching and pulsing.

16MayBrittenSinfoniaEightSeasonsDies Natalis saw the orchestra joined by regular collaborator Mark Padmore, the go-to tenor for expressive Englishness. There is a lyric stature to Thomas Traherne’s verse – “The corn was orient and immortal wheat” – that finds harmonious echo in Finzi’s long lines and folk-infused melodies. Given weight and grounding here as well as release, the Britten Sinfonia anchored Finzi’s solo tenor with a sweep of orchestral colour. The violas – stars of The Salutation – gave glossy chestnut warmth, but little could match the collective frenzy and syncopated energy of The Rapture, a barn-dance transported onto a neatly mown English lawn.

While I’m not always convinced by Padmore’s technique, there’s no denying the affinity and rightness of this music under his voice. We really were driven “almost mad with ecstasy”, secure in his musical architecture and tonal control. Just occasionally, however, I yearned for him to project less, to draw inward into a pianissimo head voice and take us with him, rather than reach out so generously.

Explicitness was also an issue in the Purcell songs. Far less sung-in, these intimate little episodes lacked a sense of being cherished or made his own, not aided by the rather less flexible accompaniment of string orchestra (arrangements by John Woolrich) rather than the more conventional harpsichord or piano. Sitting a little awkwardly in Padmore’s register, they also forced his already clipped, Baroque articulation to compensate for a lack of lower resonance, keeping the voice from flowering freely.

Emphatic in his rejection of all things English, I suggest that even Bernstein might last night have been swayed by the sinewy energy of the Britten Sinfonia and their soloist. Yes, there were hedgerows and the upland meadows, but there was also passion and plenty of dung.

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