Frank Bridge, his pupil Benjamin Britten, and Ralph Vaughan Williams: three composers defined by their role in steering English music into the twentieth century. With Britten’s centenary approaching in 2013, Kings Place’s two-concert series of English string music was a timely reminder of the musical imagination that flourished in this country at the turn of the twentieth century. Tonight’s selection – arguably too brief by a piece or two – reminded us of the brooding sensitivities of their music and the folk roots upon which all three men drew.

The Orchestra of St John's, © Orchestra of St John's
The Orchestra of St John's,
© Orchestra of St John's

A twelve-piece orchestra can struggle to bring out the depths of Britten’s Les Illuminations, his folk song arrangements and Vaughan Williams’ Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus. John Lubbock and his Orchestra of St John’s, however, had the acoustic of Kings Place Hall One on their side. This helped reduce any thinness in the sound, although it was sullied by moments of untidiness in the orchestra. All pieces were for strings, with the promising soprano Iris Korfker singing the darkly exciting Les Illuminations and three of Britten's folksong arrangements. But before that, we had a short taste of the underappreciated Frank Bridge, Britten’s teacher in the late 1920s. Bridge’s writing for strings is expressive and confident, scattered with creative articulation. Violin music played a key role in much of the composer’s life; his father taught him to play the instrument and he studied it for three years from the age of 17 at the Royal College of Music. Cherry Ripe is an amiable little piece, playfully exploring Bridge’s own motifs before falling into the old English melody ‘Cherry Ripe’ itself. The performance was often imprecise but it was nonetheless an enjoyable precursor to the meatier Britten works.

The nine-part Les Illuminations, an early but popular Britten work, has a narcotic rawness and passion to it. Its expansive phrases and indulgent highs and lows ache with the spirit of Rimbaud’s wanderings in Paris, written in a lilting stream-of-consciousness style. Britten’s knack of capturing their mystique shows in his wonderful word-painting. The fifth song ‘Marine’, for example, finishes on a piercing top note to depict a corner ‘struck by eddies of light’ before the orchestra seems to well up with emotion for an interlude set to the line ‘I too have the key to this savage parade’. Singing the poetic ‘savage parade’ was Iris Korfker. She is currently studying at the Royal Academy of Music, and gave the Illuminations a fine, fairly mature treatment. Her voice showed traces of nerves: phrases were occasionally left splintered at the edges and she had a tendency to warm up slowly into each piece. But when Korkfer got into full swing (and supported her voice away from an overdose of vibrato), her golden, fruity tone was a pleasure to listen to.

After the interval we had another short taster piece, this time by Vaughan Williams: his Prelude on ‘Rhosymedre’. This string arrangement was in fact by Arnold Foster, and the Welsh hymn tune by John Edwards, but the piece bore all the hallmarks of Vaughan Williams. The pastoral melody in G suits it title ‘Rhosymedre’, which means ‘lovely’, and warms the listener to the core.

If Vaughan Williams skilfully shares melodies around the violins, violas and cellos, Britten does so even more evocatively in his folksong arrangements. ‘The Plough Boy’, ‘Sweet Polly Oliver’ and ‘The Ash Grove’ merge yearning for an English homeland with painful reminders of love and loss, particularly in the instantly recognisable ‘Ash Grove’. As the orchestra echo the singer in canonic style, Britten creates additional tension with his juxtaposition of keys. The folksongs, which were a core element in Peter Pears’ repertoire, are brilliantly written for voice; Korfker could have taken her time more (the orchestra seemed to want to), but she seemed at home in the melodies.

Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, an ancient and well-trodden melodic path, is beautifully arranged for strings and harp by Vaughan Williams. Tonight, its five short movements settled into a neatly structured whole, despite several distinct dynamic and tempo changes. After a honeyed cello solo, the final variation makes use of the harp, steering us with a sequence of arpeggios to a peaceful close.

The concert would have been an entirely different and perhaps more satisfying affair on a different stage and with a larger ensemble. Still, it was a brave attempt to conquer some difficult numbers, and the Orchestra of St John's kept the audience in thrall to three of the most stylish writers for strings whom England has produced.