For the the latest instalment of the Britten Sinfonia At Lunch series, a number of short stand-alones from the modern repertory were carefully interweaved with Baroque arias, laid out for us like lunch at a picnic. This deceptively simple programme led the audience through a garden of delights, letting them stop every once in a while to taste the sweet night air.

Julia Doyle © Raphaelle Photography
Julia Doyle
© Raphaelle Photography

First came the Sinfonia and Aria from Bach’s Cantata BWV21. From her first entry Julia Doyle’s clear, well-projected soprano made an instant impression. Her sound suited Baroque aesthetics and her expression gave the arias a real human character, evoking Bach’s tears, sighs and remorse. Doyle brought genuine emotion and sentiment to repertoire that can often be performed drily and academically.

The accompanying ensemble was sensitive. Textures were always well supported by the basso, oboe obligatos were always well-phrased and equalled Doyle’s tone in beauty. The arpeggiations in BWV187 were particularly exquisite. At other times however, the ensemble didn’t match Doyle’s musicality. Less regular phrase shapes were required to bring the arias to life. Dotted rhythms were lacking in crispness from the continuo and at times the first violin sported a slightly anachronistic vibrato. The ensemble was redeemed however in the cantata Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut, BWV199, where the strings produced an almost Brahmsian thickness in sound, and a sublime character.

In between came a delicate arrangement of Scarlatti by Sciarrino was placed. This era-linking item was perhaps the highlight of the concert; its fresh, ethereal, fragile quality held the atmosphere in suspension. The quartet showed fantastic ensemble and blend, allowing Sciarrino’s signature harmonics to peek out over the top of the simple scalic accompaniment. Doyle’s sound quality was not at all diminished, and counterpointed intricate, moreish ornamentation against the quartet’s delicate bass line.

At this point Doyle left the stage, letting the quartet take the full spotlight. Unfortunately Pärt's Fratres suffered from slightly short-sighted phrasing, which gave it a lumpiness. It did not help that the work is, by nature, drawn out and repetitive. Each individual cultivated a beautiful sound, and there was a great balance between the four members. Miranda Dale, in particular, demonstrated considerable stamina holding an open string drone for what must have been an excruciating ten minutes.

Harpsichordist Maggie Cole was then given full focus. Ligeti’s Continuum did not come off as well as it could have done. There is no doubt that Cole exhibited incredible virtuosity and more than rose to the wrist-breaking challenge presented. The problem was that the piece was not suited at all to the acoustics of the West Road Concert Hall. From further back it was not quite possible to hear the inherent intensity, character and drama in the work, the hall not allowing the note clusters to properly blend together as needed.

All performers returned for Anna Clyne’s new commission, This Lunar Beauty. The new work featured popular folk-like melodies, dancing rhythmic divisions and cool harmonic shifts. Clyne’s natural ear for instrumentation was demonstrated through the wonderful combination of subtle colours, such as the combination of violin and oboe in beautiful perfect fifths, and doublings of vocal melodies by the oboe. At times Clyne could have controlled the textures and better, the ensemble having to fire-fight the texture’s thickness at points. This sadly resulted in Doyle melodic lines being obscured.

There were also problems with regards to the setting of the text. Slightly impractical vowels were placed on higher notes, making it hard for the singer to enunciate clearly. Secondly the text was hardly reflected in the music, the complex content of Auden’s beautiful words didn’t seem to translate. Nevertheless Clyne worked with attractive materials to make an enjoyable apex to the programme. The work’s natural freshness and Clean Bandit style buoyancy gave it a vibrant pop.

As picnics go, this was an exciting one; amongst the cucumber sandwiches and fizzy lemonade there were Heston-like reinventions of old classics and flamboyant Mad Hatter-style showstoppers. This delightful affair was a classic example of what the Britten Sinfonia does best; they wrap the old and new up together in one big blanket, shake it around, and spread it out for everyone to enjoy.