In a typically fascinating programme for one of the most adventurous orchestras in the land, the Britten Sinfonia taught an enthusiastic Saffron Hall audience some little known but remarkably beautiful Finzi and cast revelatory new light on well trodden works by Mahler and Brahms. The orchestra's four year-long Brahms symphony cycle with Sir Mark Elder seeks to strip back the generations of adiposity which have come to engulf these titans of the Romantic age. Interestingly, with pared down string sections, crystal clear textures and balance restored in favour of the winds, Elder also openly acknowledges that Brahms was himself was more than happy to pull a tempo around with generous rubato.

Sir Mark Elder © Benjamin Ealovega
Sir Mark Elder
© Benjamin Ealovega

Tonight's concert opener was Britten's unobtrusive 1941 arrangement of the “What the wild flowers tell me” second movement from Mahler's gargantuan Third Symphony. This is a movement which is seldom heard except on the back of the 30-minute tidal wave of nature which is that symphony's opening movement, typically in some enormous concert hall. To hear the short movement in the far more intimate setting of Saffron Hall, with all the unblinkered freshness of the very start of a concert, was to hear it anew with cataracts removed. Every detail was there in ultra-HD, the bright glare perhaps accounting for one or two early nerves, but the loving application of such scrutiny to this music, rather than treating it as a brief opportunity for respite, paid dividends in highlighting every inch of the beautiful, bizarre and sometimes grotesque soundscape. As was the case for much of the evening, oboe and horn solos created the most memorable moments.

If the Mahler had been a new approach to well trodden paths, Gerald Finzi's Fall of the Leaf was an entirely new avenue to explore. Originally intended as the third movement in a symphonic suite of seasons entitled The Bud, the Blossom and the Berry, Finzi left the work incomplete at his death in 1956 from Hodgkin's disease. The brass played with a golden softness, and the rest of the orchestra with lusciously romantic feeling, the great waves of sound rolling forwards with utmost expressiveness. It was an unusually full sound for a chamber orchestra, deeply moving in its sadness and at times disturbing in the darkness of muted trombone scowls.

Austrian mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman was an exquisitely gentle soloist for Mahler's Rückert-Lieder. She sang with uncommon softness of tone and fine control throughout her range, bringing each song its own richly detailed character. The first, Blicke mir nicht, found a subtle but lively spark, before an intoxicatingly warm second and deeply moving final stanza of the third, Liebst du um Schönheit

The latter two songs moved into a darker, lamenting narrative arc. The variously omitted fifth song, Um Mitternacht, was tonight placed fourth. It was stirringly bleak in its deep oboe plunges and wonderful  moments of stillness. In the absence of the strings, the woodwinds and two harps accompanied the solo line with responsive sensitivity and conjured plenty of magic of their own in a glorious brass chorale. The delicate tread of the final song, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world), was given a spine-tingling sense of space.

In Elder's hands and with the Sinfonia's relentlessly incisive tone, Brahms' much celebrated First Symphony sounded astonishingly fresh. Despite a string section of 17, there was no shortage of intensity when called upon, but it was the clarity and breathless urgency set by the first movement which characterised this performance. The first movement's introduction, in a brisk one-in-a-bar, gave way to a dashing, restless main theme, only seeming to come up for a gasp of air at the repeat. There was plenty of flexibility with the tempo, but the breathless, low-fat approach was unrelentingly thrilling.

The two inner movements retained a constant sense of momentum in their brisk footsteps, although there was plenty of space given to admire the moments of great beauty given by violin and horn solos. In the finale, the latter played his big solo with a gorgeous bloom on the longer notes, followed by a strikingly soft entry for the low brass, complete with alto trombone. From this great strophe followed a joyful account of the strings' 'big tune'. The tension then steadily grew towards the final pages, every detail of the thrilling counterpoint laid bare with dialogue bouncing between opposed first and second violins. After an almighty ramping up of the tempo, the great brass peroration was slow and monumental in its liberal rubato, in the same vein as the rest of the symphony. It closed a remarkable concert which bodes very well for the rest of the orchestra's Mahler/Brahms cycle.