One of the challenges facing performers, and listeners, of Britten’s music is the availability of the superb recordings that Britten made, often with the musicians for whom the music was written; performers have to take guidance from the recordings without slavishly imitating them, and us listeners (and reviewers even more so) have to be alert to the danger of making comparisons. The Serenade for tenor, horn and strings is a case in point. It was written in 1943, for the brilliant young horn player Dennis Brain, and Peter Pears, and recorded by them the following year. It’s this recording that I’m used to, so before attending Royal Northern Sinfonia’s performance with tenor Werner Güra, I made a point of listening to other accounts, to broaden my perspective and make sure that I was as objective as possible.

Werner Güra © Monika Rittershaus
Werner Güra
© Monika Rittershaus

The texts of the Serenade include works by some of the greatest names in English poetry – Tennyson, Keats, Johnson and Blake, and take us from an evening in the countryside, and fairy-tale sunsets through to the darker shades of night. Britten skilfully blends the horn, voice and accompanying strings to create a magical twilight world, populated by eerie spirits. Royal Northern Sinfonia’s string section, with their principal horn Peter Francomb took us right into that world, but unfortunately tenor soloist Werner Güra did not follow them.

The horn part that Britten wrote for Brain pushes this temperamental instrument to its limits, with the full kitchen-sink of technical requirements. The prologue, for solo horn, is written to be played only on open harmonics, i.e. without using any valves, to produce some unsettling effects of tuning, preparing us for the strange world to follow. After a slightly nervous start, Peter Francomb was superb throughout the contrasting moods and colours of this cycle: bright, urgent bugle calls in Nocturne, spookiness in Elegy, with some spine-chilling note bending sforzandi leading into the Dirge, and incredible precision in the fast passages of the Hymn.

Although Werner Güra’s tone was beautifully smooth and should have been well-suited to this piece, his delivery was wooden and his diction veered between a heavy German accent and complete loss of consonants, with breaths in odd places. All in all, the impression was that he was simply singing the notes without fully understanding the text, and there was no engagement with either the audience or the other performers.

The orchestra, on the other hand, were on fire all evening. Royal Northern Sinfonia love playing Mozart with Zehetmair, and it showed in every bar of the two Mozart pieces on tonight’s programme. The Divertimento in B Flat is the second of three “Salzburg Symphonies”, written when Mozart was just sixteen. Unusually, it begins with a slow, serious Andante, and this movement, particularly in the hands of Zehetmair, gives a glimpse of what the mature Mozart would achieve. It was followed by a ferocious Allegro that buzzed with energy, and again looked forwards to what Zehetmair would do later in the evening with the famous Symphony no. 40.

Mozart’s last three symphonies were written in the space of just a few months, in the summer of 1788, and mark the beginning of the symphony’s elevation to the summit of orchestral form. This evening, the first movement was characterised by big contrasts, the brooding theme super-charged with urgency, and followed by tenderness from the woodwinds, before the great whirl of key changes in the development section, that teetered on the brink of insanity.
The slow movement of the symphony was more pensive, and the repeated horn notes cut through the texture like a persistently unanswered question. There was some very enjoyable interplay between the wind and string sections in this movement, and between the woodwind parts in the third movement.

After a joyful third movement, the final movement of the symphony returned us to the urgency of the opening. It’s as if Mozart knew that he was nearing the end of his life, and was desperately trying to pour out everything he had to say, while he still had time. The cellos in particular drove this movement forwards as it hurtled towards the symphony’s stormy close. This was Mozart at his best, and Royal Northern Sinfonia’s electric performance lifted the Symphony no. 40 beyond the cliché of “popular classic” or the school textbook example of sonata form structure, and restored it to its place as a truly momentous work of art.