In a brief mid-concert interview for BBC Radio 3, conductor Sian Edwards was asked why Britten and his contemporaries wrote so much music for small string orchestra, and her answer illuminated the choice of programming for this Proms Saturday Matinee performance. She explained that British composers in the first half of the 20th century were seeking a distinct national voice, and by finding inspiration in the previous flowering of British music of the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a natural tendency to write for smaller ensembles. This fascination with the themes and structure of earlier music pervaded the music that was performed today, beginning with Britten’s take on a quintessentially Baroque form, the Prelude and Fugue. Britten Sinfonia strings balanced a gorgeously rich texture with a Baroque sparkle, and plenty of vigour from the basses; it was a pleasure to listen to, and it looked as if the orchestra were taking equal pleasure from playing it.

Sarah Connolly © Peter Warren
Sarah Connolly
© Peter Warren

The concert continued in similar vein with Holst’s lovely St Paul’s Suite. Holst’s music here is imbued with English folk-song styles (most notably in the use of Greensleeves in the final movement) and was perfect music for a sunny Saturday afternoon, especially when conducted with such wit and stylishness. Under the baton of Sian Edwards, the smooth ebb and flow of the third movement dynamics looked forward to the sensual vocal music that was come later in the concert, and she gave the fourth movement a decidedly folky swing, particularly in the offset rhythm of first theme.

Michael Tippett’s Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli with its complicated fugue demanded more concentration, from audience and players. Tippett also works in a Bach fugual subject and orchestrates the piece as a concerto grosso, with orchestra and solo parts, but giving these Baroque structures his own twist. The themes never quite resolve in the way one expects, and the dense structure draws the listener right in, and despite the rich, fat sound of Britten Sinfonia, they still maintained the clarity needed to hear the detail – helped by the excellent acoustic of Cadogan Hall.

All the composers on today’s programme had some association with Benjamin Britten, but the closest of these was undoubtedly Lennox Berkeley; the two worked together, and lived together for a few years in the 1930s, and Britten greatly admired Berkeley’s music. He considered the Four Poems of St Teresa of Avila to be his friend’s finest work, and for anyone unfamiliar with Berkeley, these fervent expressions of the composer’s Catholicism, sung by mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, are an excellent introduction to his music.

Berkeley writes long, slowly developing melodies, and these were superbly moulded by Connolly, in a performance full of quiet passion. The second song, about angels calling shepherds, is much lighter and contrasts nicely with the intensity of the other three, and Connolly gave it a lovely, Christmassy lilt – like a child singing a carol. I was struck by her physical stillness during these songs; everything was expressed through the music, with just an occasional gesture or facial expression. Berkeley balances his sinuous vocal melodies with rhythmically exciting orchestral writing, and Connolly’s powerful voice meant that the orchestra didn’t have to hold back. After Connolly’s truly chilling close to the third song, in which the singer begs to see Jesus and die, the set ends with a jazzy celebration of God’s omnipotence. Between them, Sian Edwards and Sarah Connolly made an extremely strong case for more performances of Berkeley’s music.

The programme’s final work was undoubtedly the big draw, with Sarah Connolly taking a break between performances in the role of Phaedra in Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie at Glyndebourne to perform Britten’s cantata Phaedra. In a splendid nod to the connection, Connolly had been allowed to borrow the ravishing scarlet dress from the opera production to wear for this concert. Britten’s work takes the form of a Baroque secular cantata, with arias and recitative, and even adds a harpsichord continuo, and the text is a condensed account of Phaedra’s tragic passion for her stepson Hippolyte. This is the sort of role at which Connolly excels, and her performance was as magnificent and terrifying as I expected, bringing out Phaedra’s shame and regret, whilst never relinquishing her fatally misguided love. Her first aria addressed to Hippolyte blazed with lust, leaving no doubt what was meant by the words “I want your sword’s spasmodic final inch”. The piece ends with Phaedra saying that now she’s gone, purity can return to the world, and Britten makes the point with a plaintive return to the work’s sparkling prologue, describing the May morning before Phaedra first saw Hipployte. Britten’s brilliant orchestral writing vividly complements the singer, and Britten Sinfonia rose to the occasion, amply matching Sarah Connolly’s fire in what was, simply, an unforgettable performance.

*****