A characteristically wide-ranging programme from the Britten Sinfonia marked the release of their new disc. Naturally, Dmitry Sitkovetsky's arrangement of the Goldberg Variations were at the heart of the strings-only programme, which also featured works by Locatelli, Hans Abrahamsen and a world première from London-based Tom Coult. However, the success of the interpretations greatly varied, resulting in a concert which piqued interest but did not necessarily satisfy.

Thomas Gould © Mira Stout
Thomas Gould
© Mira Stout

Locatelli's Concerto Grosso in C minor, Op.1 no. 11 received a clean, straightforward performance from the Britten Sinfonia. The players seemed reluctant to take risks: concertino passages were restrained and harmonic changes were brought off in a matter-of-fact manner. However, the final movement, an infectious Gigue, was both vivid and buoyant, with the ensemble revealing the opulent colours which they would bring to the Goldberg Variations.

Thomas Gould was the focus of the concert, taking a solo role in Hans Abrahamsen's Double Concerto, and directing the Locatelli and the Bach from the leader's seat. However, he had a tendency to play as a soloist, rather than a member of the ensemble: his tone did not blend well with the rest of the strings and his flamboyance was often overbearing, while his intonational misjudgements were just as much of an issue. Rather than a collaborative effort, the concert became a showpiece for Gould.

Tom Coult's My Curves are not Mad was inspired by a quote from Henri Matisse, in which the artist describes how his work in terms of invisible structural supports. Coult's piece similarly unfolds around hidden reference points: a pulsing pedal established at the start ceases as the work opens up, reappearing towards the end as the harmonic blueprints are revealed. It is this harmonic energy which provides the impetus for the piece to unfold.

Initially, the pedal is overlaid with insistent, aggressive figures, placed in opposition with more fantastical ideas. As the conflict between the two intensifies, the pedal ceases, although it is still implied. Ideas begin to circle around the pitch in question in a kaleidoscopic fashion, variants appearing as if reflected and refracted. A lyrical central section broadens the timbral range, with harmonics and col legno playing creating a delicate sound-world while a sonorous viola melody adds depth. This timbral exploration continued into the next section, distorting the opening material as it returns. As the pedal reappears, the harmonic series above it is synthesised, revealing the framework upon which the work is created. My Curves are not Mad contains an array of attractive timbral effects, with an effective structural principle.

Hans Abrahamsen's Double Concerto for violin, piano and strings is a work which returns to the building blocks of classical music, recontextualising them as if on a blank canvas. The defining feature of Abrahamsen's music is its economy, stripped back with bursts of colour (in this case, the zither-like plucked piano). Even as the texture is filed out, the music still seems sparse, with subtle changes having a striking effect. Although a concerto in name, the work is the antithesis of virtuosity: it is poetic in nature. Throughout the work, darker elements begin to develop, with the ensemble colours gradually intensifying and registral dissonances increasingly biting. Soloists Alasdair Beatson and Thomas Gould offered thoughtful contributions, although the latter's sound lacked the subtlety necessary for this work.

I have never been completely convinced by transcriptions of the Goldberg Variations, and Sitkovetsky's is no exception. The arrangement highlights any weaknesses within the ensemble, while the alternation of full and quartet textures quickly loses its impact. While I can recognise the merits of this transcription, these aspects were lost during this particular performance. The piece was transformed into a solo vehicle for Thomas Gould. Leading the ensemble from the first violins, virtuosic display was privileged over expression.

The ensemble had a tendency to rush, with many of the faster movements feeling unsettled. Contrapuntal dialogue became frantic, sacrificing both the accuracy and musicality of the exchanges between parts, and intonation often suffered, particularly within the viola section. Despite these flaws, there were many positives to the performance. The tutti movements sounded rich and opulent, lending them vividness and grandeur. The Britten Sinfonia revelled in the quirks of Sitovetsky's transcription, approaching the pizzicati and trills with glee. Greater characterisation of movements would be necessary to elevate the performance to another level: as it was, the intimate quartet variations were juxtaposed with the bold tutti ones. My reservations concerning this particular transcription are beside the point: a touch more sensitivity to the individual qualities of each movement would have been resulted in a much more satisfying performance.