It seems odd that a concert based around Mozart should leave one cold. The pivotal figure of the Britten Sinfonia's “Kaleidoscopes” concert is known for the humanity, warmth and charm of his music. In tribute, the ensemble presented a programme of Kurtág, Adams and Tavener, three composers for whom Mozart has been an important influence. With exception of the Kurtág though, the Britten Sinfonia's performances seemed oddly passionless, leaving me frustrated.

Nicholas Daniel © Eric Richmond
Nicholas Daniel
© Eric Richmond

With the instrumentation of Mozart's Adagio K540a still under debate, the Britten Sinfonia opted for cor anglais and strings. Although Nicholas Daniel and the three string players captured the pastoral mood with langorous phrases and warm string accompaniment, the performance seemed strangely mechanical, lacking in expressivity and spontaneity.

Although Gyorgy Kurtág was brought up on a diet of Mozart and has continued to be inspired by his music ever since, the Britten Sinfonia chose to draw attention to Kurtág's admiration for a different composer. András Mihály was an important figure in Hungarian musical culture, as well as a close friend of Kurtág's. Irka-Firka and In Memoriam Andras Mihály may well be compact, but they are certainly not lacking in impact. The pieces can be described as minimalist, but not in the sense that Philip Glass can be described as such; Kurtág's writing is stripped to the bone, making much out of little. Irka-Firka seems to place a small amount of musical material under the magnifying glass and explore it: notes are passed between the spatially separated performers (with one player in each corner of the upper level of Milton Court, and the rest of the ensemble on the platform) to hypnotic effect, the sparse texture lending the piece a haunting beauty. In Thomas Adès' arrangement of In Memoriam Andras Mihály (the composer joined the ensemble for both Kurtág works), the resonant harmonies once again created a sense of stillness and expectancy, lending the understated climactic moment a sense of poise and power.

John Adams' Shaker Loops is perhaps more effective when performed in its original septet form than the version for string orchestra. The reduced number of performers lends the sound a sense of immediacy, making the rhythms appear more direct and present. While the Britten Sinfonia certainly took advantage of this in the dramatic moments of the piece, they consistently suffered a loss of energy in the more reflective passages (reverting once again to a quasi-mechanical mode of playing). While the ensemble drew some gorgeous colours from the second movement, the inconsistency of their performance was frustrating, and it failed to come to life.

Written for Nicholas Daniel, who premiered it in 2006, John Tavener's Kaleidoscopes is rarely heard in the concert hall. This performance showed why: not only is it musically unconvincing, but astoundingly difficult. Written in episodic form, with certain sections returning to act as structural reference points, the piece attempted to reconcile Tavener's own style with sections of Mozartean pastiche. However, I was left far from satisfied at the end: although the episodes had been dissembled and reassembled over and over again, there was little sense that there had been any progress. There were also significant problems with the oboe part: the soloist is playing for much of the 40 minutes, mostly in the upper register. Eventually, the strain of the part became evident in Daniel's playing: the intonation suffered, and he was visibly exhausted.

Given the atmospheric beauty of the Britten Sinfonia's Kurtág, it was a shame that the rest of the concert fell flat. It seemed that the orchestra had almost switched onto auto-pilot, meaning that the majority of the pieces lacked the emotional connection which elevates a performance to something a little more special.