Ahead of its second concert of the 2021 Britten Weekend at Snape Maltings, the Sinfonia of London’s wind, brass and percussion sections were released into the wild along with half of the string section, leaving just 24 players to deliver an imaginative programme of well-known Britten and lesser-known Lennox Berkeley, Frank Bridge and Arthur Benjamin. A handful of section leaders had also stayed on to supply the obbligato needs of Britten’s Nocturne in an account by the tenor Ian Bostridge that seldom rose above the languid.

John Wilson conducting the Sinfonia of London
© Luke Elmer-Sampson | Britten Pears Arts

A different and less obviously gripping inspiration than the composer’s earlier, ostensibly similar, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, this 1960 collection of verse settings needs a three-dimensional performance in order to enchant with its many shades of night. Bostridge’s own recording with Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic (2005) captures the cycle’s aerated exploration of darkness better than most; but, despite the best efforts of John Wilson and his players, their afternoon performance felt more like a post-prandial snooze. Bostridge, head stooped, kept the audience at one remove from the experience with too few of his words cutting through to the rear section of the auditorium. This was especially puzzling in a venue that's blessed with one of the country’s most limpid acoustics.

Elsewhere, Wilson and his musicians gave scintillating accounts of four string showpieces. Stylistically, Berkeley’s Serenade for Strings has common ground with Britten’s contemporaneous Simple Symphony (both works are from the mid-1930s) and not just in their almost identical economy of scale. The second movement in particular is akin to a sentimental sarabande, albeit with a delicious French tang, while the Mahlerian Finale struggles to push through the limitations of its 8,6,4,4,2 string contingent. The account was immensely convincing.

Similarly impeccable was Wilson’s reading of a rediscovery of his own, Arthur Benjamin’s neglected Ballade for String Orchestra. (He found it “hidden in a dirty corner of Boosey’s”.) If this work’s 15-minute duration seemed inconsequential on first hearing, at least it ambled agreeably enough, its mood created by shifting keys and a reliance on the outer strings for melodic declamation while four hapless viola players fiddled away at some rough-grained inner jottings. The contrast with Bridge’s brief Lament could not have been sharper: the latter had open space around the notes, an uncluttered melodic line and some arresting textural effects that felt like Britten and Delius rolled into one.

Little need be said about Wilson and the Sinfonia’s interpretation of Britten’s Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge except that it was tremendous. A weak superlative, perhaps, but few others adequately render the power of two dozen heroes playing one of the house composer’s most intense and technically demanding scores with bravura skill. Their collegiate musicality stirred the spirit and it was the crowning glory to a treasurable weekend of top-level music-making by one of the most exciting conductors working in Britain today. 

Mark's accommodation in Snape was funded by Britten Pears Arts