The fourteen-year-old Benjamin Britten was already a prolific young composer, albeit without any formal training, when he heard Frank Bridge’s The Sea at the 1927 Norfolk and Norwich Triennial Festival. Hearing this performance and also meeting Bridge (who later became his composition teacher) were seminal events in the youngster’s life. In a letter written in 1963, Britten described himself as being “knocked sideways” by the effect of Bridge’s expressive tone-poem and was thrilled when Bridge agreed to look through his juvenile scribblings.

Philharmonia Orchestra players © Benjamin Ealovega
Philharmonia Orchestra players
© Benjamin Ealovega

The relationship between Britten and Bridge became so strong after their initial meeting that upon entry to public school in 1928, Britten continued to travel to Bridge’s home in Friston (East Sussex) for composition lessons, rather than seeking musical guidance from his Director of Music at Gresham’s, Walter Greatorex (also a composer).

So it came as a wonderful tribute that the Philharmonia visited St Andrew’s Hall for the 2013 Norfolk and Norwich Festival, not only making the connection between Britten and Bridge, so closely associated with the Festival’s history, but also commemorating their involvement with the Festival and their works inspired by the sea.

Both Britten and Bridge lived on the coast and were heavily influenced by the sea – Britten in Lowestoft and Aldeburgh, Bridge in Friston. The opening to the Philharmonia’s orchestral feast in front of a packed Norwich audience was The Sea, Bridge’s wonderfully broad and expansive post-Edwardian portrait of the sea at Eastbourne. Perhaps it was the towering cliffs of Beachy Head, the sprawling beaches, the Victorian pier, and the huge vistas in view that drew not only Bridge to represent the sea at Eastbourne, but also Claude Debussy, who was staying the town’s Grand Hotel when writing La Mer. The Philharmonia brilliantly portrayed both the grandeur and frivolity of the sea, with particularly warm string playing in the “Moonlight” movement. The momentous “Storm” that finishes the piece became even more real with the addition of some thunderous rain on the roof of St Andrew’s Hall.

Our Hunting Fathers was commissioned by the 1936 Norfolk and Norwich Festival and premièred on Friday 25 September, conducted by the composer. It seems quite remarkable to us living in this age that, on this same day at St Andrew’s Hall, Vaughan Williams also conducted his Five Tudor Portraits, Sir Thomas Beecham conducted Delius’ Mass of Life, and fellow ex-Greshamian Dr Heathcote Statham conducted a concert of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. How well served the people of Norwich were in those days!

With words by another ex-Greshamian, W.H. Auden, Our Hunting Fathers is another early example of Britten’s pacifist views, views that had manifested themselves by his schoolboy decision to not join the cadet force, and were to later see him move to America to avoid conscription. The soloist for this occasion was the soprano Mary Plazas, who used every ounce of her might to convey the power of the words dramatically, and despite the relatively unkind acoustics of St Andrew’s Hall, her vocal cadenzas left the audience in no doubt of her skill.

Though an orchestral masterpiece, Sinfonia da Requiem was Britten’s failed commission for the Japanese Government’s celebration of the founding of its dynasty. Written in the form of a symphonic poem, the Sinfonia is another manifestation of Britten’s response to world events and the escalating war in 1940. The violent opening movements were well captured by the orchestra, with conductor David Parry enticing beautiful contrasts of texture and timbre from his players. The opposing battle cries between horns and trumpets in the Dies irae saw the work raging on through to a faltering, hesitant ending whereupon the Requiem aeternam establishes a soft, peaceful lullaby. Here, echoes of Bridge’s orchestral scoring in the earlier-performed work, particularly in the strings, became very evident.

The final work of the evening was possibly some of the best known orchestral writing by Britten. Four Sea Interludes (from Peter Grimes) have been a popular concert addition since 1945, which incidentally was also the year the Philharmonia was founded. The concept of providing orchestral interludes from operas, as Britten does here, has not always been popular amongst composers, with Debussy particularly insistent that no interludes from his opera Pelléas et Mélisande were ever to be arranged for concert performance on their own (though they were later adapted by the American conductor Erich Leinsdorf).

On this occasion, the Philharmonia had decided to allow the audience to breathe between each movement, though I personally believe less of a pause is a more pleasing audible aesthetic. “Dawn” didn’t quite capture the magical stillness of the scene, seeming too rushed and insensitive, and a scrappy entrance to “Sunday Morning” spoilt the impact of the second piece. However, “Moonlight” beautifully captured the visual image that Britten clearly had in mind when composing these programmatic interludes, with the “Storm”, again echoing Bridge’s early work, crashing with ferocious energy to such an extent that numerous violin and cello bows were rapidly loosing hairs by the end of the piece.

It is a real pleasure to see the Norfolk and Norwich Festival paying tribute to their past commissions in this centenary year for Benjamin Britten, and the sizeable audience in attendance proved that the appetite for a near all-Britten programme is still a very viable option when programming concerts in his “home” city.