Review: Britten Sinfona at Lunch

GUIDO MARTIN-BRANDIS: ‘The Britten Sinfonia is a constant font of true musical excellence in Cambridge, and this concert was no exception’.

Britten Sinfonia Cater Dearnley Jacqueline Shave Mallarme Ravel Shai Wosner

27th April, West Road Concert Hall, 1pm. £3-7. 

The Britten Sinfonia is a constant font of true musical excellence in Cambridge, and this concert was no exception. Not safe programming for a lunchtime concert either and for this they must be applauded.

First on the menu was Gwilym Simcock's piano trio Simple Tales, a world premiere, with Jacqueline Shave (violin) and Caroline Dearnley (cello) being joined by the composer at the piano. The piece was apparently inspired by some of Charles Ives' songs but it sadly lacked the "strong individual identity and shape" that Simcock apparently hoped to imitate- though I agree wholeheartedly with the composer that the best (and even the worst!) of Ives' songs are miracles of economy and atmosphere. What we had here instead was a rather characterless suite of three movements, each in a softly dissonant, inoffensively noodling sub-jazz style, with clear folksy and minimal elements thrown into the mix too. 

The prime interest was ostensibly the melody as the harmony and rhythms were generally so bland, but even this was stultified by the fact it was unmemorable. As any self respecting cellist will tell you, the dynamic range that is available to a cellist in a piano trio ranges from loud to really really loud as the instrument is so easily overpowered in this ensemble; equally, a composer is required to ensure that the cello can actually be heard – a lesson that Simcock has not apparently yet learned either as Dearnley's valiant playing of the extremely taxing cello part was all but inaudible through the thick piano writing and high violin lines. There was one gorgeous section in the central slow movement where the violin and cello played for a few second on their own, which made one wish that the composer had dispensed with the piano altogether.

Dearnley is a truly superb player, comfortable and characterful in the most difficult repertoire as she amply showed earlier this year when the Britten Sinfonia played their all Carter programme. Occasionally one wishes for a little more volume (though Simcock's expectations were just plain unfair!), but one can hardly complain when the playing is so consistenly of such high quality. These talents were on show in Messiaen's Louange a l'Éternite de Jésus excerpted from the Quartet for the End of Time that she played next with pianist Shai Wosner. Marked "infinitely slowly" this piece is a brutal test on a cellists' bow arm and control, Dearnley giving a fine reading of this profoundly beautiful and profoundly disturbing piece.

Finally, the performers were rejoined by the equally impressive Jacqueline Shave for Ravel's Piano Trio. Ravel's Trio of 1914 along with the Mallarmé song settings of the previous year, represent the peak of Ravel's pre-war sophistication and achievement, a glistening aural tapestry, every delicate detail perfectly imagined and executed to produce a filigree of ravishing sound unparalleled even in this composer, king of suave sophistication and subtle charms. This performance was one equal to the masterpiece's status, passionate yet understated, and all the players fully up to the piece's fearful technical challenges. A highly enjoyable end to a great lunchtime's worth of music making.