“Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying.” When the Royal Mint decided to mark the centenary of Benjamin Britten in 2013 with a new 50p coin, it bore this inscription from the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. It’s a miraculous work, setting English poetry concerned with twilight and sleep, wrapping the texts in the crepuscular embrace of the French horn. Composed for Peter Pears and Dennis Brain, it presents fearsome challenges for performers. Tenor Mark Padmore and Katy Woolley, Principal Horn of the Philharmonia (as was Brain), met those challenges superbly in a freshly minted performance.

Mark Padmore © Marco Borggreve
Mark Padmore
© Marco Borggreve

Padmore made for the perfect interpreter of this cycle. His tenor has a light, airy tone, akin to Pears, but without the nasal quality. He lends the texts a rueful, world-weary quality that suits the nocturnal subject matter. The opening “Pastoral” with its lengthening shadows immediately established Padmore’s strengths: beautiful upper notes, clean lines and excellent diction, without being over-emphatic. He found darker colours for the disturbing “Elegy” and “Dirge”, while “Hymn”, Ben Jonson’s paean to the huntress Diana, found his response light and nimble. Vicious low notes occasionally tested him, but then they test most tenors. Padmore is a remarkably restrained performer, very still, often gripping the cuff of his right sleeve as if to rein himself in.

Matching Padmore every step of the way, Woolley’s playing was magnificent. From muted bugle in “Nocturne” to the terrifying tessitura in the sulphuric plumes of “Dirge”, she displayed astonishing technique and musicianship. Skittish passagework in “Hymn” was followed by an exquisitely atmospheric Epilogue played “off-stage” but out in the Hall itself. The third element in this performance – the strings of the Philharmonia, led by Vasily Petrenko – contributed attentive support, deft pizzicatos and, in John Keats’ sonnet “To sleep”, a warm, soft pillow of sound. A memorable performance, which left a warm afterglow.

The rest of the evening didn’t quite reach the same euphoric standard. Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony was given a muscular, lugubrious reading, not helped by a weighty string section of 50 players. Petrenko focused on dynamic contrast, finding an even softer pianissimo for the recapitulation in the first movement. The Andante con moto second movement was noticeable for lovely, restrained playing from guest principal clarinettist James Burke, but Petrenko’s leaden tempi lacked the con moto element.

Tempi were also a touch on the deliberate side in a well-played account of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, the composer’s politically savvy response to the intense criticism he suffered in 1936 after Stalin condemned the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Petrenko’s Shostakovich is much admired, but here it seemed a little too calculated and clinical. From an emphatic string statement at the outset, the Philharmonia strings impressed, especially the fierce double bass pizzicato interjections in the first movement and their angry introduction to the second movement Ländler. Woodwinds were under-characterised here, low on sardonic humour in this most Mahlerian of movements, apart from the bassoons who contributed gruff complaints.

For the start of the Largo, Shostakovich divides the violins into three sections; the third group – scattered among the Philharmonia’s violin desks – played on a barely perceptible thread of tone, gradually joined by their colleagues. Petrenko seemed more focused on beauty of sound than on emotion, with the result that this slow movement sounded steely and curiously cold. Things clicked into gear for the finale. The decibel count suddenly exploded, and the Philharmonia set off at quite a lick but, in the closing pages, slowed to a very deliberate, stony-faced tempo. Taken swiftly, that finale can sound jubilant; here, Petrenko perhaps bore in mind Shostakovich’s own view, reported in Testimony, muttering: “Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.” Grim and gripping in equal measure.