One of the key points underlying Southbank Centre’s epic festival The Rest is Noise is to place 20th-century music in its historical context, to show that this music – which might otherwise be considered intimidating – is more than just abstract sounds. This concert with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and their principal conductor Vladimir Jurowski drifted away a little from this tenet, placing its gaze firmly on anniversary composer Benjamin Britten with four substantial but similar pieces by him, and not a lot in the way of context.

Vladimir Jurowski conducting the LPO at the BBC Proms © BBC / Chris Christodoulou
Vladimir Jurowski conducting the LPO at the BBC Proms
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou

Britten may have cut something of a solitary figure – Ross calls him “a lonely, troubled man” – but he wasn’t totally on his own, compositionally speaking, and perhaps a swift glance at some of his contemporaries in this concert (British or otherwise) would have aided the balance. As it was, this concert seemed like something of a wistful hiatus, before the festival moved on to the tough stuff – Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono (who, Ross reminds us in his book, once refused to shake Britten’s hand) – next weekend.

Regardless, the LPO are an orchestra on fire at the moment, and at times this programme gave them the chance to shine. The Prelude and Dances from The Prince of the Pagodas (1957) is a riot for the orchestra, its percussion section swollen thanks to the composer’s exposure to the Balinese gamelan, and his imagination sparked by this ballet’s delightfully ridiculous plot. Particularly in the liveliest sections – those either side of the set of variations near the end – the LPO played with an almost cartoonish twang of precision.

The rest of the concert, though just as well played, turned sharply towards the sombre. The Suite on English Folk Tunes (A time there was…) dates from 1974, just two years before Britten’s death, and has a rueful air to it, epitomised by the plangent cor anglais solo in the final movement, “Lord Melbourne”. The folk tunes are fragmented, treated almost ironically, though moments of affection linger, as in the surprisingly sweet ending to the otherwise dark “Hankin Bobby”. There is an aloofness about this composition which Jurowski perhaps didn’t fully connect with: though sonically rich, this was a performance hard to identify with.

A reshuffle meant that the two most substantial pieces on the programme, the Nocturne and the Cello Symphony, both followed the interval, and they picked up the sombre mood of A time there was. The Nocturne has an austere, serious tone perfectly suited to tenor Mark Padmore, and in its dry, neat procession through its seven obbligato instruments (various winds, harp and timpani, all of which play with a string orchestra) it perhaps points forward to Harrison Birtwistle. Also like this later composer’s music, Nocturne pulls few punches emotionally, and Britten is occasionally quite unremitting in his grimness: soft, deathly chords interject during the bright flute and clarinet duet of the penultimate movement, a Keats setting. While this isn’t a particularly late work – it’s from 1958 – it sounds like one. Padmore delivered a typically impeccable performance, and connected well with the orchestra.

The 1963 Cello Symphony is a less distinctive piece, at least as far as I can make out. It’s effectively a concerto, despite its curious name, and while Truls Mørk played with his customary brilliance and passion, this wasn’t the revelatory live performance I had been hoping for, having struggled to grasp it from recordings. I couldn’t help but compare it – unfavourably – to another piece written for Rostropovich: the Lutosławski concerto (1968–70), which Mørk performed here at the Royal Festival Hall with the Philharmonia earlier this year (and which the LPO will perform with Johannes Moser in a couple of weeks). The comparison makes Britten’s frequent recourse to tonal sounds and gestures (his piece ends with a big, major chord, for instance) sound a little mannered, in a way that it doesn’t in his other works. What’s more, Lutosławski is quite conspicuously the more inventive orchestrator. While there’s brilliance in the composition, I don’t think it’s Britten at his best.

The lack of context to this performance of the piece may have benefitted those audience members not thinking about Lutosławski, but I still wonder if isolating Britten from the rest of the year’s survey was the best thing to do. After all, if Britten is to truly matter beyond his centenary year, surely he must be more than a “lonely, troubled man” – isn’t he a man whose music can stand up to that of his international contemporaries? Even if the Cello Symphony isn’t the piece to prove it, he surely is, and his music deserves to be heard alongside theirs, as part of the 20th-century canon.