Review: Britten Sinfonia

MADELINE DE-BERRIE and JOE CONWAY agree ‘the concentration of no player waned’ and ‘with each player individually connected with the music emotionally.’

Beethoven Britten Sinfonia Imogen Cooper Jacqueline Shave Janacek Richard Tognetti Southwark Centre west road

Monday 17th May, West Road Concert Hall. £15/£29. 

MADELINE DE-BERRIE was enthralled by the first half…

Last night's Britten Sinfonia concert was surely one of the most together performances the West Road stage has seen in a while. The first work of the programme, Mozart's Haffner Symphony No. 35 in D major, K.385, first and foremost, demonstrated fantastic chamber music playing. The symphony was directed with great energy and verve from the violin by Jacqueline Shave, who was the focus of every musician.

The result was so well co-ordinated that it formed a good argument for the redundance of a conductor, as it was not only technically together, but also had great musical unity. Although the performance was clearly well-rehearsed, the result was by no means stale, but was both polished and thoroughly musically alive.

The Mozart was followed by Janacek's string Quartet No. 1, arranged for string orchestra by Richard Tognetti. A discussion of the performance of this string quartet in arrangement cannot be omitted. A fellow concertgoer commented that the arrangement of the string quartet for greater forces was redundant, on the basis that the original Janacek lacked nothing. He even went so far as to point out that Tognetti admits defeat in his inclusion of small sections for string quartet in his arrangement. I concur absolutely with this argument, as the original quartet lacks nothing in intensity or drama which the magnified forces replace.

Having said that, the musical essence of Janacek's string quartet is a work of such quality that it would be impossible to destroy it merely by magnifying its forces, and the Sinfonia's performance was truly excellent. Each section was in complete unity, with every musician playing as musically and with as much energy as if they were the sole player of their part. They demonstrated that if any orchestra were to have the ability to play a string quartet, it is the Britten Sinfonia, as they are truly a chamber orchestra.

What really made this concert fantastic was the degree of energy each individual contributed to the performance. The concentration of no player waned, with each player individually connected with the music emotionally. And so, subsequently was the audience, as the result was something well worth hearing.

JOE CONWAY is just as full of praise for the second half…

After the interval Imogen Cooper joined the Britten Sinfonia for a performance of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. The greatness of this music lies in the way in which Beethoven is able to transform the base metal of simple chords, military fanfares, and horn calls, into a piano concerto of pure gold whose magnificence and grandeur have never been equalled. The alchemical change from the conventional to the extraordinary provides a kind of hidden agenda throughout this piece, which will celebrate its two hundredth birthday next year. Written in war-torn Vienna it's also a tribute to Beethoven's ability to rise above all kinds of hazardous practical problems to create an enduring work of art.

Imogen Cooper

This crackling performance seemed to emphasise the turbulent origins of the piece. From the fiery opening arpeggios onwards Imogen's playing was generally assertive and triumphant. Her strong, steely fingers experienced no problems with Beethoven's taxing piano figurations, and her approach was totally in tandem with the proactive style of the Britten Sinfonia. In the amazing double octave passage about half way through the first movement her splendid playing even slightly obscured the orchestra for a few moments. However it was followed soon after by an oboe solo that was so beautifully done that it almost upstaged everything else!  

Beethoven's genius is at its height in the shift from the first to the second movements. The first ends and the second begins with the same note, but in totally different keys. The effect was magical on Monday night with Jacqueline Shave leading the orchestra in chords of feathery lightness. The transition from the second to the third movement is also astonishing, as piano and orchestra tentatively search for the appropriate key. Imogen Cooper and the Britten Sinfonia were at their best in these moments of tranquillity before the gloriously galumphing finale got underway.

The concert will be performed again tonight in London at the Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall (7:30pm) with tickets ranging from £10-£30.