THE Britten Sinfonia, based in Cambridge, is now more than a
chamber ensemble serving the east of England, writes Roderic
Dunnett. It is a force in national music, which commissions
and engages in new music and much more.
But it also excels in traditional repertoire, and at that
repertoire's edges, as its latest outing in Cambridge University's
West Road Concert Hall, repeated in the Milton Court Hall at the
Barbican, demonstrated. Its compilation "Fields of Sorrow" was
conducted by the Swiss Baldur Brönnimann, one of the live wires
among younger UK-based conductors, who won his spurs at the Royal
Northern College of Music, and before that in Basel.
What was intriguing about this concert was the juxtaposition of
music preceding the Great War -a beautifully textured reading of
Vaughan Williams's 1910 Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas
Tallis, famously based on Tallis's psalter tune for "Why
Fum'th in Fight The Gentiles spite, In fury raging stout", a
metrical version of Psalm 2 - with RVW's post-war evocation
Flos Campi, a 1925 setting for viola, voices, and
orchestra; with works by Holst; and with an 80th-birthday tribute
to Sir Harrison Birtwistle (who briefly studied with Vaughan
Williams). This was designed to show how, at times, avant-garde or
no, Birtwistle is directly linked, both in and out of opera, with
the English pastoral tradition.
The Britten Sinfonia went on to participate in a revival of
Birt-wistle's "shepherd" opera Yan Tan Tethera in the
Barbican Hall itself.
The Birtwistle works were, in fact, the concert's highlight:
notably his 24-minute voiceless choral piece Melencolia I,
evoking "mysteriously balanced stillness between opposites", and
treating a melody by means of pitch-class sets (the very epitome of
post-war Modernist techniques). Yet it is based, appreciatively, on
a Dürer engraving, and was given a vivid performance by the
substantial Britten Sinfonia Voices, trained by Eamonn Dougan. The
instrumental solo parts (harp, clarinet) emerged particularly
expressively to reinforce the narrative, and underlined, despite
the work's overall spareness, the distinct Romantic tinge and
colourings that can often be felt in Birtwistle's instrumental
Holst's Eight Canons (1932) likewise drew on
fascinating, rewarding sources: Alcuin, Peter Abelard (a succinct
casting of David's lament for Jonathan: "For with but half a soul
what can Life do?"), and the seventh- or eighth-century collection
of (later French-owned) Latin poems known as Codex
The last, a bleak passage from Ausonius ("In the dim light grow
old Flowers that were once bewailed names of kings" - the
translations are by Helen Waddell), was set both by Holst and, four
decades later, quite independently, by Birtwistle, pianos,
vibraphone, and muted horn adding skilfully to the sombre feel of
the lakeland and woodland text.
MEANWHILE, in Oxfordshire, the English Music Festival, that
champion of neglected masterpieces and bastion of excellence, too,
was get-ting under way at Dorchester Abbey. Not surprisingly, the
2014 festival, although a month ahead of the centenary of events in
Sarajevo, was focused on the outbreak of the First World War.
I could take pleasure that Ivor Gurney, one of those I feel most
drawn to, was doubly honoured on the Saturday: that night with his
anthem "The Trumpet", a resonant, if harmonically slightly knotty,
setting of Edward Thomas; and first with his Five Western
Watercolours, a little tame but charming, performed that
morning in the Abbey by the versatile pianist Duncan Honeybourne.
In his programme, "Forgotten Romantics" (embracing Frank Bridge's
war-grieving Piano Sonata and a bevy of eloquent lighter pieces by
Greville Cooke, 1894-1989), Honeybourne also elegantly championed
the Miniature Suite of Ernest Farrar (1885-1918).
It was Farrar, Lewisham-born and later the Harrogate-based
teacher of Gerald Finzi, killed near Le Cateau two months before
the Armistice, to whom Finzi dedicated his post-war indictment -
but also commemoration - of conflict, Requiem da Camera
("War's annals will cloud into night Ere their story die"), roughly
coinciding with Vaughan Williams's elegiac Third Symphony. The City
of London Choir under Hilary Davan Wetton gave a stirring
performance of the Finzi as a culmination to that evening's richly
A link with the Britten Sinfonia's Cambridge event was that in
its magnificent programme, "Flowers of the Field", the City of
London Choir included Holst's Six Choruses for Men's
Voices, op. 53, which date from exactly the same time
(c.1932) as his Eight Canons. Again, Holst turned
to Helen Waddell's quite recent translations (published 1929). "How
mighty are the Sabbaths" is her version of 56 lines of Abelard,
rich in psalmic optimism, resignation, and asseveration of faith in
God: "Jerusalem is the city Of everlastingpeace. . ."; "And the
long exile over Captive in Babylon"; and the doxology "Now to the
King Eternal Be praise eternally. . .".
We were especially lucky that Davan Wetton and Em Marshall, the
Festival's plucky and enabling artistic director, chose to
programme music not only by George Butterworth (who likewise
perished in autumn 1918), but by Cecil Coles. The latter was a
fascinating figure whose potential was cut off as he helped to
rescue others in that same last year of the war, in April.
Coles (1888-1918: just 29 when he died), too, had no great cause
to hate the Germans: he served before the war as assistant to Max
von Schillings at the Stuttgart Royal Opera, one of Europe's most
valuable and sophisticated opera houses. Behind the Lines,
for orchestra, was indeed written while on campaign in 1917, and
since only "Crossroads Tavern", "Estaminet du Carrefour" -
possibly a more colourful or even dodgy location than its title
instantly suggests - was orchestrated; the rest was not. Hence
others, most recently the English-music scholar Philip Lancaster,
have turned their hand to producing quite outstanding, apt
orchestrations of the designated third movement, "Cortège".
In a war such as that, the title scarcely needs explaining.
Davan Wetton produced from his Holst Orchestra such an intense,
searing, and unbelievably beautiful playing of both movements that
the work remains just that - seared into one's memory. How lucky we
are to have the English Music Festival! It ticks all the right
boxes and hits all the right notes: a marvellously rewarding five
days for all those lucky enough to catch the entire programme.