Endeavouring to travel lightly through the world, I tend not to collect programme notes. However, such was the quality of Jo Kirkbride’s notes for this SCO Britten centenary celebration that scanning them for e-posterity is tempting. They prompted a consideration of the whole idea of programming. A structured evening’s listening is an entirely different thing from an evening’s will-o’-the-wisp home listening, and it can be greatly enhanced by coherent notes from a single source.

Richard Egarr © Marco Borggreve
Richard Egarr
© Marco Borggreve

This, the first of two SCO centenary Britten tributes, made much of his love of Purcell, who featured in three of the works. I say “featured” as arguably the most unusual work of the evening was Catches and a Rondeau, arranged by conductor Richard Egarr. The Rondeau theme at its heart (the one from Purcell’s 1695 Abdelazar Z 750, which Britten used in his 1946 Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra) underwent some transformations which would even have raised the eyebrows of a modernist like Purcell. This was most noticeable in the opening angular trumpet statement, beautifully delivered by SCO principal trumpet Peter Franks. The “catches” (popular vocal rounds from Purcell’s day) were delivered instrumentally in sections, violins, woodwind, cellos and finally on the instrument played by both Britten and Purcell, the violas, gingered by pizzicato strings.

Unadulterated instrumental Purcell, so to speak, took the form of a suite from his 1691 stage work, King Arthur Z 628. The opening pairs of echoing phrases showed the SCO at their electric, focused best. In his warm and humorous introductory remarks, Egarr indicated his love of the closing Chaconne. A huge fan of the G minor Chaconne Z 730, I was looking forward to hearing this and was not disappointed. The SCO’s brisk yet lyrical rendition highlighted Purcell’s masterful masking of the apparently simple eight-bar structure, confirming my suspicion that few can rival Purcell in making triple time chaconnes sound rock-and-roll.

Prompted by real life as opposed to stage pomp, My Heart is Inditing Z 30 formed part of Purcell’s music for the 1685 coronation of James II. The instrumental music I found divine. I tend, however, to find myself shrinking from the sycophantic text in such works. This is certainly not the fault of the 49-strong SCO chorus who, under the tutelage of chorusmaster Gregory Batsleer, were in fine voice, particularly so in the closing and harmonically fearless “Alleluja, amen”.

The SCO Chorus’ other contribution to the evening was Britten’s 1930 a cappella A Hymn to the Virgin. Written while he was still at school, this was one of only two Britten works performed at his funeral. Interweaving English and Latin text, this antiphonal work for double chorus has a old-world, devotional simplicity which was wonderfully captured here.

Although not many would guess on grounds of stylistic similarity, Arvo Pärt is a great admirer of Britten. Britten’s love of counterpoint is not obviously mimicked in Pärt's 1977 Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. However, there is a similar, if more veiled, thematic unity in that the five sections of the string orchestra join the successive iterations of the principal motif at half the speed of the previous entry. The resulting note-length ratio of 1:2:4:8:16 certainly binds the work together, although I can’t honestly claim that I’d have spotted this without Kirkbride’s helpful notes. However, it was clear, as often happens when “seeing” live music, that kinetic reality differed from previous aural perceptions. The devotional nature of Pärt’s tribute was touchingly conveyed by the SCO strings, sombrely underlined tubular bells. The otherwise relaxed Egarr adopted a far more martial conducting style in this work, presumably necessitated by the absence of obvious audible pulse. This was especially true of the urgently communicated tubular bell cues.

The SCO impressively clinched the many moods of Britten’s 1953 Courtly Dances from Gloriana – many more moods than you’d expect of courtliness. Certainly there is elegance, but also darkness and even Tarantella-like frenzy in “La Volta”.

One piece proved to me that even a beautifully crafted programme such as this can’t predict audience response. Britten’s 1943 tribute to J.S. Bach, Prelude and Fugue for Strings, was the second item and pretty much brought the house down, creating an oddly shaped graph of the evening's intensity. The strings had thinned down from 7/7/4/4/2 in the preceding King Arthur suite to 5/5/3/3/2 and yet the sound was huge, possibly because the upper strings stood. This thrilling performance featured an outstanding solo contribution from SCO guest leader Sarah Oates. Anyone previously regarding preludes and fugues as academic would have had this notion blown apart.

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