22 November 2012 would have been Benjamin Britten’s 99th birthday. Wigmore Hall marked the occasion with the first concert in a series of nine events in November and December. However, rather than focusing exclusively on Britten’s music, it built towards the climax that saw Britten’s angst-ridden late masterpiece Phaedra searingly performed.

Britten Sinfonia
Britten Sinfonia

Britten’s interest in the music of Henry Purcell is well know, but less so perhaps that of other English composers. Three works by Purcell opened the evening. The Rondeau from the Abdelazer suite was given a gutsy, full-toned yet acutely balanced performance by Britten Sinfonia, led with confidence by violinist Jacqueline Shave. Alice Coote took centre-stage for a performance of Job’s Curse, “Let the night perish”. Naturally drawing from the mettle within her voice, Coote ranged from the near declamatory to a hushed rapture that was no less commanding. Composer Nico Muhly’s ornamentations were entirely his own, tasteful if a little predictable. Leopold Stokowski’s string ensemble arrangement of Dido’s Lament from the opera Dido and Aeneas is a rather plushly upholstered affair, a fact that Britten Sinfonia ably emphasised in their playing. The solo vocal line was largely shared between violin and cello parts, maintaining to an adequate degree the pathos felt in Purcell’s original conception. A further Purcell work was heard in the second half. Arranged by Britten for string ensemble, the Chacony in G minor was given a reading replete with liveliness of phrasing that benefited from an apt sense of light and shade within the playing, whilst proceeding to a thrilling fortissimo conclusion that was never marred by the slightest brashness of tone.

Michael Tippett was represented by two works. The first, “A Lament” from Divertimento on Sellinger’s Round, found the ensemble revelling in the tightly constructed close web of harmonies, emphasising their exploratory nature and exposing details of texture seemingly almost at will. The other work, Little Music for strings, from 1946, appeared in the second half. The opening prelude was dominant and full of force, which contrasted nicely with the fleetness of gesture in the ensuing second-movement fugue. The third movement, an air, very much caught the “espressivo” asked for in the tempo marking. The Vivace finale might have been initially hesitant, as Tippett intended, but it soon sprang into life, strongly driven by a sense of self-propulsion. Not for the first time in the evening did Britten Sinfonia evidence their skill in shaping and holding the diminuendoed final chords to telling effect.

Britten’s Prelude and Fugue, Op. 29, owed its place on the programme to having been premièred at Wigmore Hall, on 23 June 1945. The Prelude’s opening was brilliant, biting and bold. The Fugue, though, held more substantive interest with its sectionally constructed format that allowed a vibrancy to tone to rush forth. Layerings, particularly those of cellos over the double basses, held sway, whilst elsewhere the ensemble was unafraid to dig deep within the rhythmic patterns Britten desires.

As a prelude to Phaedra were three arias from Handel’s opera Alcina, a work that has long been a Coote favourite. The link between the two works is evident in Britten’s scoring of Phaedra, which follows a Handelian model. “Mi lusinga il dolce affetto” appeared effortless for Coote to sing, but her artistry hides the effort made in singing, and her restrained portrayal was imbued with a quietness which commanded, always attentive to the textual subtleties. Further keenness of shading was evident in the refulgent lushness of “Verdi prati”. This contrasted well with the third aria, “Stà nell’Ircana”, which left forth fiery vocal flashes against the involved and swaggering accompaniment.

The performance of Britten’s Phaedra, then, promised much – and much was duly delivered. The scena, consisting of five parts, could have seemed rather disjointed, were it not held together by the strong sense of identity that Alice Coote brought to the woman behind Phaedra. Indeed, her portrayal became almost a psychological essay in music. Imperiousness marked out much of the Prologue, whilst the ensuing Recitative was more than amply reflective. Outrage took hold in the Presto to Hippolytus, and here again a steely aspect within Coote’s tone was particularly expressive. It found telling union with the gestures of face and arms which Coote used to hint at a far deeper anguish within.

A sense of self-reflection haunted the ensuing Recitative to Oenone, awareness too of Phaedra’s own adulterous passions. The anguish though could not be dispelled in the closing Adagio to Theseus, which combined nobility, fragility and humanity (as only Britten can) in the final moments of life. Britten Sinfonia was conducted (for Phaedra only) by Richard Hetherington, whose unerring sense of the dramatic took a scalpel to every instrumental sinew and laid it bare. Little wonder then, that at the end Alice Coote, Hetherington and the Sinfonia took a minute to return from Britten’s dark, imaginative recesses to the resounding applause that filled Wigmore Hall.