As Benjamin Britten’s centenary year draws to an end, Royal Northern Sinfonia began their own tribute last night, with a Late Mix chamber concert that drew on works from the start and end of Britten’s composing career, in a tightly planned programme full of pleasing connections. Throughout his career, Britten nurtured and supported younger composers, and so after Britten’s Op. 1 Sinfonietta, written whilst he was a student at the Royal College of Music, came a piece by the young composer Thomas MacMillan that was written as part of Royal Northern Sinfonia’s University Composition Project. Colin Matthews was one of those composers who benefited from a close association with Britten, and his Oboe Quartet no. 1 was written in 1981 for the centenary of Nottingham University. Matthews had a hand in Britten’s Third String Quartet, helping the seriously ill composer with piano realisations of his sketches, and it was this sublime work from the very end of Britten’s career that closed the concert.

Benjamin Britten At Crag House; photo by Roland Haupt © Britten–Pears Foundation
Benjamin Britten At Crag House; photo by Roland Haupt
© Britten–Pears Foundation

Thomas MacMillan’s A Thousand Plateaus, scored for five pairs of wind instruments, was a much more attractive piece than the composer’s own rather laborious programme notes had suggested. Bursting with youthful energy, MacMillan’s piece was characterised by rapidly shifting tempi and changes of texture, from a heavy denseness, with all ten instruments playing, to moments of beautiful clarity, such as a brief unison passage for two horns, and some pretty minimalist writing dominated by the flutes.

The influence of Britten’s later works was apparent in Colin Matthews’ demanding oboe quartet, a piece that required hard work from the listener as well as the players. The oboe substitutes for the first violin of the standard string quartet line-up, adding vibrant colour to the string texture, and short passages for all four instruments alternate with varying trio sections – in this performance the resting players conducted. After jagged, prickly music through the opening, this short piece changed mood and closed with a lovely imitative viola and cello passage, and a strangely quiet, whimsical end.

Britten’s Sinfonietta was later reworked for chamber orchestra, but this evening we heard it in its original, cleaner form, for ten solo wind and string instruments. Royal Northern Sinfonia’s performance began heavily – the opening clarinet motif was ponderous, with a bluesy huskiness – but by the final, vivacious Tarantella the performance had acquired the lightness and brilliance that it needed. Like so much of Britten’s work, this piece mixes English and continental influences; it references Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony and the opening motif has decidedly Central European feel, and then the music returns home for a decidedly English pastoral lyricism in the second movement, with shimmering high string writing. This movement was beautifully played, the wind players demonstrating wonderful blend and unity as they passed the melody seamlessly between them. Britten’s own youthful voice really comes through in the Tarantella; it bursts out of the previous movement with some furiously energetic writing for Britten’s own instrument, the viola, and is full of rhythmic inventiveness. It was played with whirling energy, vividly invoking the spirit of the bright, clever young Britten.

The String Quartet no. 3 was a lifetime away from the Sinfonietta, the precocious student giving way to the reflections of an old man. It opens with a mesmerising duet, violin and viola twisting around each other, with graceful interjections from the other two instruments, and the third movement, “Solo”, is in a similar vein. Jane Nossek’s violin solo began with a thin, clean sound that blossomed as the movement progressed. The four players transfixed the audience, and you could feel that no-one dared even breathe as this movement came quietly to its end. The faster second and fourth movements, were, by contrast, forceful and energetic, the four note ostinato of the second movement driving the music onwards, particularly when it came in the cello line.

It is the final movement of this quartet, though, more than anything else we heard this evening, where Britten’s genius shines out. He wrote this movement whilst on a last holiday to his beloved Venice, and titled it with the city’s nickname La Serenissma, a description that seems more than apt for this elegiac work. As he did so often, Britten looks back again here to the musical language of the baroque: this last movement begins with a short recitative passage that gives way to a rolling passacaglia, suffused with the spirit of Venice – the tolling of its bells and quotes from Britten’s Death in Venice. Its lonely, wandering theme, ending with a little falling pattern, gives a sense of both man and city sinking beneath the waves, and this moving performance by the four Royal Northern Sinfonia players was all the more poignant for its contrast with the Sinfonietta. The prolonged silence from the spellbound audience said it all.