Britten Sinfonia’s latest At Lunch series got off to a fine start at Wigmore Hall on 11 December. Featuring principal musicians from the orchestra performing chamber works, the series draws repertoire from across the ages, including premières of new works co-commissioned by the ensemble and the venue.

Britten Sinfonia © Harry Rankin
Britten Sinfonia
© Harry Rankin

Mozart’s Violin Sonata no. 33 in E flat major was written during one of the busiest years of his life: 1785, making it a mature work. Its entry into his catalogue gives a clue as to its unusual nature: “A piano sonata with accompaniment for a violin”. In it he foresees Schubert’s attitude to the piano as an equal partner in performance, with as much to offer as the “soloist”.

An Adagio is perhaps not a natural concert opener, which might explain the somewhat increased tempo. However, this did not detract from the performance at all. Huw Watkins certainly relished the chance to shine, producing a beautiful, sparkling tone from Wigmore Hall’s Steinway, which was matched by Jacqueline Shave when the violin was the prominent soloist. The interaction was not always an equal one; moving the instruments to positions of similar prominence might have been impractical, given the rest of the programme, but it would have been helpful for this piece.

Britten Sinfonia paid tribute to another composer, besides their namesake, whose centenary has fallen this year – Witold Lutosławski – with a performance of his Bukoliki. Originally written in 1952 for solo piano, these five short pieces were commissioned by a state-owned music publisher. This meant that they were bound by strict rules on musical content, which saw Lutosławski incorporate Polish folk melodies into them.

The composer arranged them for viola and cello to great effect in 1962, and it is in this arrangement that the pastoral poems the title invokes really come to life. Clare Finnimore (viola) and Caroline Dearnley (cello) brought huge amounts of vigour to their performance, with an absolutely flawless ensemble. They looked like they were enjoying themselves enormously, with an energetic playfulness.

This season’s co-commission came from Sally Beamish, in the form of a trio for violin, viola and cello. The King’s Alchemist was inspired by the court of King James IV of Scotland, which included John Damian, likely an Italian alchemist who tried to fly from the battlements of Stirling Castle. The trio is a set of variations of the French folksong L’homme armé, which was used by another resident of King James IV’s court, composer Robert Carver, for a mass setting.

The first movement opened by stating the theme through harmonics, beautifully rendered by Shave, Finnimore and Dearnley, and interspersed with brief lyrical moments from all three instruments. This was contrasted with juddering spirit in an unstable Scherzo in the second movement, which really gave the feeling of flying. The third movement was entitled Pavana, although it was not music to dance to, but music of great romanticism. The flawless ensemble displayed by Finnimore and Dearnley was joined by Shave in the final movement, where deft writing from Beamish saw elements of birdcalls scattered between the parts. This was the highlight of the concert, and the piece deserves repeat performances.

The major work of the concert was Fauré’s Piano Quartet no. 2 in G minor. To anyone well-versed with his more famous works such as the Requiem, the Pavane and many songs, the Second Piano Quartet is something of a surprise. While utilising Classical structures, it is full of passionate, unrestrained emotion. Each movement begins with arpeggiations from the piano, and opens and closes with long, melodious lines in octaves from the strings.

This performance was on the faster side of “Allegro molto moderato”, but it worked well, with Watkins shimmering underneath tender lyrical octaves from Shave, Finnimore and Dearnley. Shave in particular shone in her prominent passages. The energy continued in the Allegro molto, with particularly deft playing from Watkins, only faltering right at the end, where the final chords didn’t quite sit comfortably. The Adagio ma non troppo was intensely calm, with beautifully fluid playing and great nuances in tempo creating wonderful contrasts. The interaction between Watkins and Finnimore was especially delightful. The final Allegro molto was another movement of contrasts, with glistening play from Watkins alternating with expressive eruptions from the entire quartet.

Particularly admirable was the appearance of ease all four musicians gave to their performance; the frantic racing coda looked like child’s play to them. This was the case throughout the whole concert; anyone who attends the At Lunch concerts in Norwich and Cambridge is in for a real treat.