Britten’s Suite on English Folk Tunes is his final orchestral work, and one of that small group of late pieces written after his heart operation in 1973. It seems valued less than other works in that group like Canticle V or the Third Quartet. But its five short movements certainly made a refreshing item to open the Britten Sinfonia’s concert. The title evokes some bucolic idyll, but there is little traditional English pastoralism here. The opening “Cakes and Ale” is all timpani crashes and scurrying strings marked “fast and rough”, while the wind and percussion procession of the central “Hankin Booby” has the not disagreeable sharpness occasioned by sucking lemons. That movement was written initially for the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Hall (did Britten really feel like that about the QEH?)

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

In its last movement, “Lord Melbourne”, the suite becomes essential Britten. It features one of the repertoire’s great cor anglais solos. Emma Fielding could not have played it more hauntingly , recalling the solos for her instrument in Act 3 of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, or the Largo of Dvorak's “New World” Symphony. Like those pieces it builds inexorably to a great climax, in this case of passionate despair. It served well as a quiz item for friends when Bernstein’s premiere recording appeared – one asked “is it Mahler?” The suite has the subtitle “A Time There Was”, and thus looks back to his great 1954 song cycle Winter Words and the song that closes it with the phrase “How long, how long?” Not very long, alas. The year after its Aldeburgh premiere the composer was dead, aged just 63. We should hear this suite more often surely, especially performed as well as it was by Sir Mark Elder and the eponymous orchestra.

Mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany was due to sing Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) but fell ill. Irish mezzo Paula Murrihy took her place at short notice, and any disappointment was soon banished by her opening phrases. Here was not just a fine voice, but the vocal charm and manners required for this work. Mahler wrote the texts himself but the music is still in the world of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, requiring a blend of folksiness and sophistication.

The first song Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (When my love is married) was passionately declaimed but Murrihy never compromised beauty of tone even under pressure. Ging heut morgen übers Feld is familiar from its use in the composer’s First Symphony, and might have been more jaunty in its celebration of walking in the fields on a lovely morning. The exquisite final song had, to quote its last line, “Everything – love and sorrow and world and dream!” Just occasionally the orchestra covered the singer, but for the most part this was a very accomplished account given the little preparation time available – Murrihy’s biography was on one of those hastily printed inserts given out with the programme. When next updated it should make more of her credentials as a Mahlerian.

Brahms’ symphonies are sometimes played nowadays by chamber orchestras. As ever with such developments there are gains and losses, but on this occasion the former more than compensated for the latter. First the “chamber” orchestra was not that small – strings were 10.10.8.8.4, close to the size Brahms preferred, and used himself in Meiningen. But that’s still a lot fewer than in a standard symphony orchestra founded on eight double basses, and it allows the wind and brass relatively greater prominence. This is especially delightful in the case of the four horns (here plus a bumper), a section essential to Brahms’ sound. They gave a warm glow to the texture that might have had the well-travelled among the Barbican audience dreaming of Vienna’s Musikverein. And first horn Alex Wide was the star of the evening. Perhaps Brahms isn’t a thick orchestrator at all, just one who suffers from the thickening in the size of orchestras.

Elder, of whose first Brahms cycle this formed part, has spoken of Brahms being expected to have a “monumentality which isn’t in proportion to what I read in the scores.” He came across as a natural Brahms conductor, even a classical one, for his account of this most ingratiating of the four symphonies was exemplary. No slowing down or speeding up where tradition (but not the score) dictates, so that each movement flowed naturally. The string section led by Jacqueline Shave played very well indeed for him, and we heard an abundance of songful woodwind detail often obscured. The closing Allegro had plenty of impetus without becoming frantic, and the coda, capped by some athletic and jubilant trumpet playing, was terrific. Hugo Wolf once said “Brahms cannot exult”. He should have heard this.

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