The Britten Sinfonia has long been committed to new music, not least through its OPUS scheme, whereby unpublished composers are given the chance to write for the group. Patrick John Jones was the lucky recipient of the 2014 commission and his new piece for wind quintet was the inspiration for this beguiling lunchtime affair.

Consisting entirely of wind quintet repertoire spanning nearly a century, delivered expertly by the Sinfonia’s own principal players, the programme opened with Michael Berkeley’s Re-inventions. The starting point for this piece was the composer’s love of J.S. Bach’s keyboard inventions; the work thus alternated between transcriptions of four of these and cadenza-like meditations on the material, composed by Berkeley himself. One couldn’t find fault with the arrangements themselves, breathing fresh life in to the original counterpoint, and they were sensitively performed, but the total effect of the work was rather queer: it was unclear what purpose the new material served.

Patrick John Jones © Cathy Pyle
Patrick John Jones
© Cathy Pyle

Ruth Crawford Seeger may be an unfamiliar name to some, but the overtly modernistic music she wrote in America during the first half of the 20th century makes her a rather unique and fascinating figure. Her Suite for Wind Quintet – the last piece she ever completed – serves as a sympathetic introduction to her work. Cast in three short movements it is distinguished by the extraordinarily well-judged use of the ensemble, controlling register and doubling to render the individual sonorities at times indistinguishable. A great variety of colouring and articulation is required to communicate this in performance and the Sinfonia’s players were more than up to the task.

The following piece was the new commission from Patrick John Jones. In such lofty company it would have been easy for the work of a young composer to be overshadowed, but Jones is clearly far too able and imaginative a composer to allow that to happen. Described as a descent in to and out of a bizarre musical ‘landscape’, the piece suggested certain affinities with the music of Harrison Birtwistle in its juxtaposition of musical blocks. However the comparison was not unflattering, as both the materials and the form were assured and compelling. As was to be expected the players once again delivered the music with both gusto and refinement.

Gusto would be a good way of describing their performance of Nielsen’s Suite for Wind Quintet. This was an interpretation that sought to highlight the modern aspects of Nielsen’s style, allowing the Mozart-inspired Classical form to hover ghost-like in the background. The incessant vibrancy of the articulation was perhaps a touch overdone, but there was delicacy when needed, particularly during the chorale theme that opens and concludes the final movement. All in all it was that rare thing: a performance of a canonic work that makes one hear it afresh. Thoroughly convincing.