Tonight’s programme was a feast of British music, with a Britten flavour, played by the strings of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, joined by virtuosic viola player Lawrence Power, whose prowess is bringing this much-neglected solo instrument into its own.

Lawrence Power © Jack Liebeck
Lawrence Power
© Jack Liebeck

We started with the beautiful Introduction and Allegro for string quartet and string orchestra, written by Edward Elgar in 1905. The solo roles were taken by the leaders of the respective sections, who remained seated within the orchestra, making for some beautiful moments in which the solo lines wound their way around the luscious orchestral sound, sometimes blending with, then appearing as if by magic out of the rich texture. The beauty of the Academy is that they work without a conductor, meaning that every player takes responsibility for the musical interpretation in a very soloistic way. The soaring Welsh folk tune that takes the second theme of the opening section was broadly and boldly played, while the intricate fugal section was neat and well phrased.

Lawrence Power then took centre stage for the Lachrymae, the only piece for solo viola that Britten wrote, despite being a skilled player himself. A series of variations based on Dowland’s Come, Heavy Sleep, the haunting opening makes use of the eerie sound of string harmonics, and is distinctively more atonal than many of Britten’s works. Power is an incredibly expressive player, with dramatic and powerful body language, which suited the piece and meant that the Academy were perfect accompanists – allowing a beautiful freedom and expressivity within the solo line while always being completely in sync with the soloist. Beautiful arching phrases and wild semiquavers were interspersed with beautifully placed accompanying chords, and Power took the rich sumptuous alto line when the original Dowland theme appeared at the end of the journey.

This was followed by another set of variations involving Britten, this time inspired by his Frank Bridge variations: Variations of a Theme of Benjamin Britten was composed by a former member of the Academy, Sally Beamish. The dramatic unison of the introduction led us into a whirlwind of stylistically contrasting variations, each with their individual quirky characteristics. The strange syncopated Waltz contrasted with the rich and romantic Requiem and the sombre Paean theme in the basses, and made use of the unique soloistic setup of the Academy, with every player having a starring role, utilising the virtuosity of the group.

We began the second half with the distinctive Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten by Estonian minimalist composer Arvo Pärt. Using the harmonics of the tolling of the tubular bell, the gradually mutating theme builds to an enormous crescendo in which the still regularly tolling bell is almost lost in the full string texture. The depth and sonority of the orchestra was mesmerising and led us beautifully into the final work of the evening: Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Bridge was one of Britten’s teachers at a young age and a great influence on his creative growth throughout his early years. Utilising the full technical ability of the string orchestra, we are whisked through a dramatic introduction, theme and eleven variations, all of which are distinctive, dramatic, quirky and extremely humorous (and one point the upper strings start strumming their instruments like guitars). The vigour and life of the Academy’s rendition was fabulous and brought the evening to a dazzling close.