When a programme is well put together and nicely themed, it is quite easy to turn one’s attention away from the sound of music, and onto the history of music. PCM 4 at Cadogan Hall was breezily introduced by the BBC compere as a programme marking Britten’s centenary, exploring his relationship with his peers, and celebrating his friend Lutoslawski. Yes, it did all that. But when the baton came down it was, as usual, the sound which earned the talking points.

Ben Johnson © Chris Gloag
Ben Johnson
© Chris Gloag

Considering that Britten had a hand in well over three-quarters of the music, the concert comprised a surprising variety of styles, forms and timbres. The English Chamber Orchestra were our hosts, and at the direction of Paul Watkins they managed the scope of the task well.

Variety was most apparent in the Variations on an Elizabethan Theme “Sellinger’s Round”. Five of the variations were composed by friends and acquaintances of Britten at his request, Britten added one himself, and the BBC have specially commissioned two more this year. The result is a body of work with eight composers and one theme. While there is a certain novelty to the co-location of different styles, and indeed to see what each mind made of the original Elizabethan theme, it is a bewildering set to listen to. The English Chamber Orchestra were completely committed to each variation and played with great dynamism and richness, but even so the material seemed too cerebral for an interested listener to become more than interested.

The new variations, by John Woolrich and Tansy Davies were certainly fresh, with each bringing some unexpected moods to bear on the source material. Sadly, Davies’ work was oddly uncomfortable to listen to; high violins and very low basses with nothing audible in between was unsettling on some basic, presumably biological level. Relief came from William Walton’s energising finale – notable for very broad yet detailed string playing from the orchestra, which Paul Watkins seemed to elicit with the slightest of gestures.

The gestures were understandably much bigger for the complex opening of Lutoslawski’s Paroles tisées (Woven words). Prior to the tenor soloist Ben Johnson’s entry, there was a captivating and deliberate exercise in not playing together as the orchestra mastered Lutoslawski’s demanding music and all the discoordination it seems to require. The chaos suddenly jolted into a more familiar syncopation, before dropping off for the tenor line, which Johnson appeared to enjoy immensely. The text by Jean-Francois Chabrun is mysterious on its own, and Johnson’s spitting rendition of the “thousand horses out of breath” and the terrifying “partridge’s cry” added some real verve to the creepy atmosphere.

Johnson was later joined by Richard Watkins for Britten’s fantastic Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. This, I sensed from the mutterings of those patrons that sat near me, was the most anticipated and best-loved piece on the programme. After the troubling variations and the spooky Lutoslawski, the horn prelude announcing this favourite was a good moment. With its many moments, its unusual duetting, and its witty setting of great poems, the serenade is very engaging indeed. The Pastoral and Hymn (words by Charles Cotton and Ben Jonson respectively) were joyous in their bright melodies. However, the Dirge was relentlessly doom-laden and sickly. The character here was as much in the writing as in the varying approaches of the tenor and the horn. They worked together, echoing each other and complementing each other throughout, reaching a high point at the sad introduction to William Blake’s depressing Elegy.

Variety of form, colour, style, and harmony was present throughout this concert, but it was never better realised than in the controlled, character driver performance of Britten’s Serenade. The challenging Variations acted as a kind of “programme within a programme”, which I feel overloaded a short concert with too many concepts and comparisons. All the same, the quality of music-making that the orchestra and the soloists engaged in went a very long way indeed, and ensured another good BBC Prom.