Perhaps visions of the royal princes in battle dress influenced last night’s programme. Or perhaps it was merely felt that Beethoven’s Eroica symphony requires a suitably epic companion. Either way, the result was a rare performance of Britten’s enormous Battle of Heroes, written to honour the members of the International Brigade who died in the Spanish Civil war. Forming the filling of this heroic sandwich was the UK premiere of James Clarke’s Untitled No.2 for solo piano and orchestra, which if not heroic, was certainly daring in its composition.

© Lara Platman
© Lara Platman

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3; however the sheer aural and visual impact of two hundred and fifty people performing Britten’s apocalyptic work for tenor, chorus and orchestra cannot be easily replicated outside the concert hall. The opening offstage trumpet fanfares were brutally crisp, followed by a weary march in the lower strings underneath a haunting cor anglais solo. Conductor Ilan Volkov used his devilishly brisk technique to create a precise sound that added tension to the dramatically charged piece. The chorus performed with superb clarity and an awe-inspiring dynamic range. Their impressive vitality may have threatened to overshadow a lesser soloist, but in tenor Toby Spence they found their perfect foil. Powerful yet hugely expressive, Spence rose above Britten’s challenges to his technique with the ease which has secured him so many great operatic roles.

If not heroic, James Clarke’s new work is certainly brave. Untitled No. 2 is the work of a skilled composer with confidence in his own writing. Bold choices abound, from the title to a long passage of solo piano chords, to the seemingly unfinished ending. The piece is based on three-note clusters which enter phases of turmoil and emerge as clusters of different pitches. In common with Minimalist works, the pared-down clusters take on huge significance to the listener; however Clarke’s music sparkles with highly individual touches. These techniques allow the piece to become animated, for example the clarinets often took over notes which the piano held, lending life to the end of the chord in the way a piano cannot. Soloist Nicholas Hodges understood his role within the orchestra perfectly, sometimes burying the chords within the orchestral texture and sometimes emerging in passionate declamation.

After the interval came the most heroic work of all: Beethoven’s third symphony. Originally intended to honour Napoleon, the composer became so enraged upon hearing that his hero had proclaimed himself Emperor that he tore up the title page. The piece is inscribed to “the memory of a great man” and became known simply as the Eroica. From Volkov’s electric performance of the Britten and the small number of players who reappeared onstage it was clear that this performance would be one to remember: Beethoven symphonies are often performed by orchestras much larger than he intended, making the clarity and rhythmic drive of his writing harder to achieve. The sound of a larger orchestra can cover up tricky solos, moments of poor ensemble and characterless playing; however the orchestra didn’t need any such latitude. Volkov’s lively tempi throughout the symphony also showed off the excellence of the orchestra: at this speed, the woodwind section especially really shone. This was only Volkov’s second appearance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, an iconic partnership in the making.