In what was apparently the first appearance from an Irish orchestra at the Proms since the 1970s, pianist/conductor Barry Douglas and the strings of his Camerata Ireland brought a programme to Cadogan Hall which examined Benjamin Britten in the context of some of his contemporaries and friends. Britten himself bookended the programme, which also contained music from the mid 20th century by Lennox Berkeley, Dmitri Shostakovich and South African-British composer Priaulx Rainier. With several novelties programmed as well as a couple of classics, this was a concert of intriguing similarities and differences.

Barry Douglas © Katya Kraynova
Barry Douglas
© Katya Kraynova

Though the set finished with a work of genius – there’s no doubting the status of the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937) as an early masterpiece – the opening pairing of Britten’s Young Apollo for strings and piano (1939) with Lennox Berkeley’s Serenade for strings (also 1939) saw the lesser-rated composer win out. The musical style of the Berkeley is well familiar: it’s written in the neat, schooled Neoclassical style taught by Stravinsky acolyte Nadia Boulanger, with whom Berkeley had studied. But this four-movement piece’s lively textures and imaginative counterpoint lift it beyond the bookish to create a delightful, delicate concert piece, here served well by Douglas’ serious, scoreless conducting. The Britten, on the other hand, contains some characteristically beguiling harmonies but overall is a more awkward experience than either Berkeley’s piece or the Bridge Variations (even though it post-dates the variations by two years). It seemed oddly restrained at times, with Britten’s natural inclinations occasionally seeming checked by more austere, Stravinskian sounds which do it few favours in this context. Britten withdrew it from publication after its première, and while this Britten centenary year is proving a great opportunity to explore some of the gaps in this composer’s larger-than-expected oeuvre, it does seem that it’s by and large his best scores which have risen to the top of the pile over the years.

It received a strong performance, though, even if Douglas gave himself a taxing job in directing from the piano, whose busy part often appeared to take up most of his attention. This was also the case in Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, in which the orchestra seemed to be fending for themselves during the more piano-heavy sections. It was worth the effort, however: this dynamic piece, Shostakovich at his liveliest, drew the best performance of the evening, enhanced by a cameo from star trumpeter Alison Balsom, who delivered the cheeky solo part with panache. It was a relief, as well, to have this piece included, as the rest of the programme was a little on the uniform side.

The greatest novelty on the bill was a 62-year-old world première: Priaulx Rainier’s Movement for strings was not performed as had originally been scheduled in 1951 for “unknown reasons”, in the words of the concert’s chipper presenter Clemency Burton-Hill. Rainier’s is an interesting story – she was born in South Africa, and there’s an African influence in much of her work – but here, Movement tended towards the gloopy, inhabiting that familiar neo-pastoral, Neoclassical world of Britten and Tippett but in a knotty, thick style. A larger-scale re-evaluation of Rainier’s music would be a great thing to see, but I doubt this will be the piece to break her into the mainstream.

Camerata Ireland reserved their best form for the best pieces: the Shostakovich and the closing Britten were the two that sparkled most brightly. Britten’s Bridge Variations, though, did lack a little in the closing stages: I wasn’t quite convinced by their handling of two of the final variations, “Funeral March” and “Chant”, which together show the range of Britten’s influences – the former recalls Mahler; the latter Stavinsky. Douglas didn’t conjure up the extreme contrasts these movements offer, and the result was a performance with plenty of energy and an attractive, full sound, but without that final degree of clarity a string ensemble can find. But still, overall the afternoon contained some beautifully full-bodied playing, and a worthwhile exploration of some intriguing repertoire.

***11