This second of two SCO Britten centenary concerts saw its subject juxtaposed with two living British composers and Mozart. Cynics might consider the closing Symphony no. 40 in G minor (1788) a reward for surviving the rest of the programme’s modernity. However, the audience of sophisticated, paying volunteers, such as I felt to be present, would be more likely to detect in it a parallel with our own, home-grown, prolific child prodigy, Benjamin Britten. The symphony’s high point, for me, came in the Andante where a sequence of paired, descending demisemiquavers passes through the woodwind. The decrescendo into this passage was handled with such unanimous delicacy as to hush the mind for what was to follow. These woodwind figures, which counterpoint the movement’s main theme of repeated notes, are so easily rushed yet here floated so airily, lending the following climax additional charge. The closing Allegro assai was delivered with that great refuter of clichéd elementary musical theory – minor-key joy.

George Benjamin © Robert Millard
George Benjamin
© Robert Millard

In his opening remarks, conductor George Benjamin encouraged us to hear the humour in Harrison Birtwistle’s Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum (1977–8), citing Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which was at its height at the time of composition. Brightly scored for four woodwind, three brass, string quintet, marimba and piano, this short homage to Paul Klee employs music suggesting clockwork machinery. However, such were the rhythms that I was not prompted to imagine, for example, wind-up robots. The kind of creations and movements prompted by this music would require someone with a more finely-tuned 3D visual imagination than I could ever dream of possessing. I really warmed to this buoyant, funky piece on a first hearing.

In his pre-concert talk, composer Martin Suckling outlined what we might listen out for in his 2011 SCO commission storm, rose, tiger. Doubtless the most noticeable feature was his use of microtones. Interestingly, he stressed that he does not employ, as the term suggests, intervals smaller than a semitones, as these can be jarring. More likely would be, for example, 1.75 tones, falling tantalisingly between minor and major. Fascinating as this was, both to hear about and to hear, I should stress that Suckling’s “traditional” harmony and orchestration are sufficiently breathtaking in their own right. Inspired by Borges’ short story The Circular Ruins, the musical terrain explores the elusive ground between the magical and the real, the dreamt and the experienced. I especially listened out for, and enjoyed, the closing section in which Suckling had included a passacaglia in order to moor the microtonal sounds above. I very much look forward to following the fortunes of this young composer (a former pupil of George Benjamin) and to revisiting this piece.

The cornerstone of the programme was undoubtedly Britten’s 1943 Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. I read recently, though not recently enough to recall where, that musical works heard when we are young often register most deeply. This is certainly true of my relationship with this piece, which I first heard aged 17. The role of the horn, outstandingly played here by the SCO’s own Alec Frank-Gemmill, is to open and close the work and, in a variety of ways, to accompany the tenor in his exploration of the crepuscular and nocturnal texts. In addition to stratospherically high notes, the horn part features some huge intervals, which were thrillingly executed. The are also natural harmonics which, falling between the tonal cracks help to usher us from the waking world into the various alternatives depicted in the poems.

One of the darkest settings is of Blake’s “Elegy”. Beneath a fantastically dark SCO string sound, appeared a troubling, unmoored bass line which I couldn't believe has eluded me these long years. The expressive, involved playing of Nikita Naumov and Arian Bornet certainly made it unmissable here. Adding to the unsettling mood, tenor John Mark Ainsley clinched the harmonically elusive, wide ranging descent which menacingly sets the line &ldqou;and his dark secret love”.

Blake’s neighbour in the Serenade’s dark centre is the anonymous 15th-century Lyke Wake Dirge. In a much higher register, Ainsley outlined the rewards and tortures which charity or selfishness in this life might earn us in the next. This accountability exercise was conducted against a menacing dance of sprightly dread in the strings – Britten at his ironic best.

Keats’ “Sonnet”, seeking delivery from “curious Conscience”, quietly sizzled with disquieting electricity. Ben Johnson’s “Hymn” set off at a pace which both surprised and delighted me, adding a thrill to Ainsley’s dazzling melisma on the “e” of “excellently”. And this summed up how this performance had been executed. Following the touching offstage horn epilogue, the audience simply erupted. Intelligent programming dictated that only one thing could possibly follow this: the interval.