John Woolrich is a publically undervalued contributor to British musical life. Quite aside from his creative output, his work as artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival and the Dartington International Summer School, along with teaching and the creation of the revolutionary Composers Ensemble in the 1980s, have made him an invaluable asset to British contemporary music. This evening’s concert attempted to celebrate as many of the man’s musical guises as possible, and what better ensemble to do it than the Britten Sinfonia, with whom Woolrich has long been associated.

John Woolrich © Maurice Foxall
John Woolrich
© Maurice Foxall

In addition to the many roles outlined above, the first three pieces on the programme afforded the opportunity to admire Woolrich’s work as an arranger. First came versions of three songs by Purcell – Music for a While, If music be the Food of Love, Sweeter than Roses – scored for string orchestra and soprano. Compared to the original keyboard realisations – by Michael Tippett no less – these versions perhaps lacked the ‘austere and beautiful’ qualities that Woolrich claimed to so admire. However, particularly in Sweeter than Roses, the added textural vitality provided by the strings added a new dimension to some of the less explicitly introverted moments. The vocal lines were sung by Mary Bevan, filling in for her indisposed sister Sophie, with impressive technical assurance, though her voice perhaps lacked the fullness of tone needed to communicate the melancholy nobility of these pieces.

After Purcell we were transported 200 years through time to the Italian Songs of Hugo Wolf, here arranged for string orchestra alone. The subsuming of the vocal part in to the ensemble ensured that these works took on a new life of their own; one was able to marvel afresh at Wolf’s harmonic invention.

We were then treated to the first work for which Woolrich is credited as composer, but the world of rearrangement and transcription was not too far away. Ulysses Awakes, for solo viola and strings, uses music from Monteverdi’s opera Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria as its primary source of material. With the vocal line transplanted to the viola, played here by the Sinfonia’s own Clare Finnimore, the music took on a new elegiac quality, in contrast to the directness of the original. By blurring the harmonic progressions, allowing fragile dissonances to linger momentarily, and developing the motivic explorations of the solo line, Woolrich cast this familiar music in a new expressive mould.

Further continuing the theme of rearrangement was Stravinsky’s own Eight Instrumental Miniatures, which began life as simple piano exercises before Stravinsky rearranged them for a wind-heavy ensemble of 15 instruments. Exhibiting an almost insular focus on technical matters, including the small canons used to enrich the rather sparse original textures, these pieces rely on vitality of articulation and colouristic boldness for their effect. This was realised broadly successfully, though without ever quite convincing.

The first half closed with Mozart’s concert aria Per pietà, non ricercate, which saw Mary Bevan return to the stage. Her vocal style seemed much more at home here, her vocal articulation was particularly effective, and she was ably supported by the warm and poised playing of the ensemble. The programming of this piece, carried out by Woolrich himself of course, whose skills as a programmer are legendary, was something of a masterstroke. It provided the perfect foil to the Stravinsky whilst underlining the debt Stravinsky owed to Mozart: the syntax was remarkably similar in all but the modernistically mechanical qualities of the former.

More Stravinsky opened the second half, no surprise given Woolrich’s well-declared admiration for his work. This time we were treated to a sound performance of Dumbarton Oaks, the composer’s Brandenburg Concerto-inspired work for chamber ensemble. Under the guidance of talented young conductor Duncan Ward, the musicians produced clear and exciting playing. The phrasing was a little stiff at times, but the broad shape of the work was communicated effectively.

The concert concluded with a performance of Woolrich’s Violin Concerto – a form that is, perhaps surprisingly, still very much alive and kicking: one need only think of recent contributions to the genre made by composers such as Thomas Adès, Harrison Birtwistle, and Esa-Pekka Salonen. The proliferation of recent works combined with the weighty historical traditions of the form can make it challenging to carve out one’s own expressive space in this context; ably assisted by the sympathetic playing of the Sinfonia’s leader, Thomas Gould, Woolrich succeeded in doing so. Constructed as a series of musical blocks, each characterised by a different take on the violin’s opening, insistently rising and chromatic material, the work takes much of its energy from the tension between the lyricism of the violin and the pulsing accompaniment of the ensemble. Unfolding with a compelling clarity of thought, the musical scene gradually changes focus in increasingly stable and recognisable manifestations of the basic materials before the piece arrives at a slow and well-judged conclusion, the once dry accompaniment smeared in to a series of haunting chords in the strings.