The centenary of Benjamin Britten continues to gather pace as we move through February and it was a warm welcome given to the Aronowitz Ensemble for an all-English programme of chamber music on Friday evening. Gresham’s Auden Theatre is at the heart of many of the schools’ activities to celebrate their most famous old-boy and the Aronowitz Ensemble made the most of the occasion by programming works not only by Britten, but by his teacher Frank Bridge also.

A young Benjamin Britten playing piano at home in 1921
A young Benjamin Britten playing piano at home in 1921

In 1929, the young Britten presented his music master, Walter Greatorex, with a score entitled Bagatelle, scored for violin, viola and piano, in the hope that it might be performed in a school concert. Despite Greatorex’s oft-referred-to reticence, it was perhaps a sign of encouragement towards his talented pupil that the Bagatelle was programmed for its “première” in March 1930, with Joyce Chapman, Britten’s viola teacher, Greatorex, and Britten himself performing.

It wasn’t until many years later that the score was rediscovered by cellist Guy Johnson in Britten’s archive at the Red House in Aldeburgh, and subsequently performed at The Forge, Camden. Still unpublished, the Aronowitz Ensemble opened with this wonderful piece of juvenilia, which echoes many of the romantic notions of his teacher Frank Bridge’s string works from the turn of the century.  The swirling harmonies in the string parts interact beautifully with the sweet lyricism of the  piano and it was a joyous – and very accessible – example of the young Britten’s work, even if the composer himself referred to the work in his schoolboy diaries as “small” and “silly”. One very much hopes that this piece can soon be published so that many more people have the opportunity to hear it.

This most romantic of works was immediately contrasted with a piece which utilised the septet line-up, Sad Steps (2008), written especially for the ensemble by Huw Watkins, Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music. The melancholy of the music was immediately apparent, with the dissonant conversation between piano and strings made even more effective by the communication between the players. The energised middle section led to passages of real conflict between the themes in the piano and the portamento in the strings, dragging the music back down to its gloomy depths. I particularly liked the raindrop motif that carried the music to a close, petering out to oblivion, and the effectiveness of this piece brought a beautiful silence to the audience for just a few moments before the well-deserved applause.

Britten’s remarkable String Quartet no. 3, first performed a few days after the composer’s early death, then followed, allowing the audience a chance to compare Britten’s early and late styles of writing for small ensemble. Perhaps the most moving of the movements was the third, marked “very calm”. If music was ever written to evoke silence, then this was it. Such was the atmospheric playing, you could clearly picture the reeds around Snape swaying gently in the wind, distant birdsong in the air, as it might have been surveyed by the frail composer, as he was in 1976.

The second half of the concert opened with a Britten première, courtesy of the Britten–Pears Foundation. The Poem of Hate was composed by Britten in 1929, just yards away from where tonight’s performance took place, in response to hearing a particularly unsatisfactory composition by his music master, the aforementioned Greatorex, that was performed in a school chapel service. Lasting only about a minute, the piece is a violent representation, for solo piano, of Britten’s anger – of which the audience could be left in no doubt! Tom Poster performed it with a great sense of style and panache, and with a good deal of fun too.

The final piece almost came to cleanse the palate for an audience somewhat overwhelmed by the unusual intensity of the programming. Britten’s composition tutor Frank Bridge wrote his Piano Quintet in D minor in 1905, but drastically revised it in 1912, resulting in the Scherzo being integrated in the middle movement of the piece. Having heard Britten’s Bagatelle at the opening of the concert, the link between teacher and pupil became very obvious and the same romanticism shone through in abundance. The incredible warmth of the harmonies, the delicate playing of the ensemble, and the total immersion of the performers in the music entranced the audience and perhaps forgave the earlier abundances of dissonance.

This was a wonderful evening of chamber music, being played at its finest in this intimate and most relevant venue in the Britten centenary year, with a programme that has hopefully reintroduced (or, in the case of Poem of Hate, introduced) two fine pieces of the composer’s juvenilia to a concert-going public.