The centenary of Britten’s birth has seen a surge in performances of his music both in the concert hall and on the stages of many a noted opera house. Sensationalised biographies, radio and television programmes, and a number of Britten-centred festivals have helped to pique further interest in a composer whose music tends to attract a love-hate relationship with its listeners. Unsurprisingly, Britten Sinfonia is in the midst of a busy year of imaginative concerts and hotly anticipated collaborations.

Benjamin Britten; image courtesy Yousuf Karsh
Benjamin Britten; image courtesy Yousuf Karsh

Last Wednesday’s lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall chiefly comprised music by Britten and Bridge, and was conceived to show the similarities, rather than the differences, between Britten and his teacher. True it is that Frank Bridge wrote twee themes and variations on English tunes, but more than once he introduced angularity, unexpected progressions and dissonances into his composition; he gave Britten the foundation upon which he could make his own, very distinctive mark on the map. Conversely, Britten was better known for making efforts to establish his reputation well outside the musical mainstream, but his compositional idiosyncrasies also include conventional harmonies and a certain British charm.

Britten Sinfonia has various guises, and nowhere was this more palpable than in this recital. It began with co-founder and Principal Oboe Nicholas Daniel playing Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, for solo oboe. Taking structural and narrative inspiration from Ovid’s fifteen-book poem Metamorphoses, the work describes musically six mythological characters, from the free-spirited Pan to the self-obsessed Narcissus. Daniel seemed to understand each of the six equally and perfectly – in between brief pauses, it was as though he was getting into character for the next movement. Although it is impossible to single out a particular favourite movement – each was utterly sublime – the audience chuckled at the frivolous ending to the fourth movement, depicting Bacchus.

Demonstrating just how good Britten’s understanding of individual instruments was, the next item in the programme was for solo cello. Tema Sacher is the briefest of pieces, lasting just over a minute, but it is packed with exquisite music. Britten, along with other leading lights, including Berio, Boulez and Lutosławski, was approached by renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich to write part of a series of ten variations as a 70th birthday present for the conductor Paul Sacher. He instead wrote the theme; inspired by Bach’s B-A-C-H, he wrote a theme on S-A-C-H-E-R (“Es” being the German for E flat, “H” being the German for B, and the “R” signifying the French “Ré”, or D). Britten reworks an odd sequence of notes into something magical and intense. Cellist Caroline Dearnley displayed an extraordinary range of technical skill, with seemingly endless position-changing and double-stopping – not to mention the dynamic range. Despite its brevity, at the end it felt as though I’d been treated to a full-blown concerto.

Bridge’s Two Old English Songs (“Sally in our Alley” and “Cherry Ripe”) followed, and it was here that the similarities between Bridge and Britten began to emerge. Bridge, like Britten to follow, was a wartime pacifist, and the breakout of war coincided with a distinct shift in compositional style. Written in 1916, in the midst of the First World War, chromaticisms and dissonance begin to emerge pretty quickly out of these quintessentially English tunes, yet somehow they retain their lightness of character. There can be no doubt that that was aided by the Sinfonia’s sensitive playing, which provided humour in the lighter moments, and gravitas in the more angular parts.

The Britten Sinfonia–Wigmore Hall co-commission Divertimento, written by young composer Ryan Latimer as part of the OPUS 2013 composition competition, had a unique style, though it fitted into the programme remarkably well. Like Britten and Bridge, Latimer seems to have a fine understanding of each instrument, as well as their roles in various ensemble types. He, too, combined conventional harmony with dissonance and advanced techniques, though there was far more of the latter here. A string quartet, plus harp and oboe, were used in various combinations during the piece. The audience seemed to understand it from the off; and, with Britten Sinfonia’s excellent playing (and serious approach to preparation, it seemed), it was most enjoyable, too.

Britten’s love affair with the harp also featured, in the form of his Suite for Harp, written for his friend and distinguished harpist Osian Ellis. Whilst full of virtuosic displays, written to show off Ellis’ skill and deftly handled by Lucy Wakeford, there are also more contemplative moments, as in the central “Nocturne” movement. The harp’s being placed centre-stage emphasised the music’s flamboyance. The programme was nicely rounded off with the original string quartet version of Sir Roger de Coverley, the orchestral version of which might be familiar to some as a Last Night of the Proms favourite. This was a programme of musical character and contrast, the demands of which were expertly handled by Britten Sinfonia from start to finish.