Britten Sinfonia at Milton Court: A Horn World Premiere

The Watkins concerto is certainly listener-friendly and should attain a place in the repertoire

Britten Sinfonia at Milton Court: A Horn World Premiere

Weir, Britten, Watkins, Mozart Nicky Spence (tenor); Ben Goldscheider (horn); Britten Sinfonia / Max Baillie (violin/director, Britten, Mozart); Michael Papadopoulos (conductor, Weir, Watkins) 

Judith Weir   Heroic Strokes of the Bow (1992) 

Britten   Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31 (1943) 

Huw Watkins. Horn concerto (World Premiere) 

Mozart    Symphony No.35 in D, K 385, ‘Haffner’ (1783) 

The capacity audience at Milton Court was a surefire indication of the support the Britten Sinfonia enjoys. This was a typically adventurous programme, mixing World Premieres wtth music of today, a classic from the last century and closing with a Mozart favourite. 

Britten Sinfonia often plays sans conductor, guided by its leader, here Max Baillie. But here it did use a conductor for two items, the Weir and he Watkins. 

Composed in 1992 on a commission by the Sekretariat fur gemeinsame Kulturarbeit in Nordheim-Westfalen for the Westdeutsche Sinfonie, and premiered in Lewerkusen, Germany, Weir's Heroic Strokes of the Bow (also called by its original title, Heroische Bogenstreiche) was inspired by a painting by Paul Klee for 1938 that is rumoured. to be a tribute to the great violinist Adolf Busch. Weir's piece is more of a response to the painting’s title than the painting per se, with the idea of “excessive physical energy applied to to a small piece of wood” informing the energetic violin lines. See this link to view the painting and its details via the MOMA website., and here's a  link to a performance by the BBCScottish SO and Ilan Vokov (the video also displays the painting in question):

Some might be familiar with Martyn Brabbins’ recording on NMC above; the Britten Sinfonia offered a slightly more variegated take, highlighting the wide range of Weir’s language (including a surprise Richard Straussian moment!). The piece does celebrate gesture, and, at the opening, those gestures are separated by silences. A pity, then, that conductor Michael Papadopoulos, whose contribution otherwise was a model of clarity, has a habit of sniffing audibly on upbeats during those silences (and I was placed at the back of the hall). Once noticed, t becomes a distraction. Weir’s piece is expertly constructed and full of imagination; the orchestral response here was superb (preferable, to my ears, to the NMC recording). A fine start. 

Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings is beyond doubt a 20th-century masterpiece. It was of course the territory of Dennis Brain, and of Peter Pears; one could posit that Nicky Spence and Ben Goldscheider as the latter-day equivalents. Performed without conductor, this was a spell-binding account. Very much literally in the spotlight, Goldscheider gave a perfect account of the tricky Prologue – it is performed without valves (so all on open notes) on the Horn’s F-side, which means Britten could factor in the tuning of natural harmonics for expressive effect (the flat F-natural, for example). Goldschedider was massively sensitive, shading the final diminuendo to perfection (Britten asks the note begins pianississimo and then writes a diminuendo down from that!).  

The tenor enters in the second movement, the ‘Pastoral’ to a text by Charles Cotton (1630-87). Spence’s voice seems perfect, his legato as smooth as Goldscheider’s in the slowly descending lines. Nice and playful pizzicatos from the Britten Sinfonia strings at the onset of the final stanza, too (‘A very little, little flock / Shades thrice the ground that it would sock’). 

Britten loved a good Nocturne. The one here, to Tennyson, is full of horn fanfares (‘Blow, bugle, blow,’ exhorts the singer, ‘Set the wild echoes flying’ - and how the horn obliges!). The communication between the two soloists is vital, therefor, and totally successful here, while the Britten Sinfonia strings expertly moved between glass-like shards of sound towards the parting, final, quiet gesture. The ‘Elegy’ (to Blake’s well-known ‘O Rose, thou art sick’) famously - for horn players, anyway - includes two sustained high C’s (the instrument’s alleged top note) which ’resolve’ to an equally sustained top B natural the semitone below. Both were successful here (the second the finer and clearer); Spence’s plangent lines were the perfect riposte, heard against shifting chords in the strings.  

The challenge for the singer must surely be the high, exposed (unaccompanied) opening of the ‘Dirge’ (‘This ae nighte’ - an anonymous, 15th-century text). Spence was spellbinding, his lines consistently undermined by the strings’ ‘worrying’ gestures. Britten builds slowly to the horn entrance, and Goldscheider’s arrival, and subsequent navigation of Britten’s demands of velocity and force, were perfectly delivered.  

Sheer velocity belies the title of ‘Hymn’. This is a hymn to a Goddess by Ben Jonson (the poem’s full title is Hymn to Diana). It is virtuoso for all concerned: the horn part encompasses the entirety of he accepted range (there is a crowning, quaver top C and the final note is a pedal F, the latter raising a titter from the audience). Exit Grosvenor at this point – the Epilogue is performed off-stage – leaving Spence to sing, against gossamer strings, the ‘Sonnet’ (Keats: ‘O soft embalmer of the still midnight’). The performance works so well because of the harmonic sensitivity of all. Britten’s harmonies are incredibly expressive, and the strings delivered them with tensile strength, while Spence’s melismas meandered, hauntingly. Goldscheider’s ‘Epilogue’ (the Prologue but distanced) was the perfect close. 

The ‘World Premiere’ was the Horn Concerto by Huw Watkins (this was actually the second performance – the first had been within this same programme, but performed at Saffron Hall on Sunday, April 7). Goldscheider has also performed Huw Watkins’ Lament at the Wigmore Hall recently, and he has recorded that expressive piece on his disc Legacy (A Tribute to Dennis Brain); the Lament was birthed after Goldscheder played Watkins’ Horn Trio in 2020, so there is something of a chain of pieces here. Here's the Lament:

Cast in three movements, the new Concerto is, as one might expect, massively challenging for the soloist; the performance was all the more impressive, then, given that Goldscheider had already essayed the Britten Serenade in the first half.  

The first movement of the concerto is full of heroic leaps, a swashbuckling act of post-romanticism set against a bustling, near-frenetic orchestra. As with Gavin Higgins’ new concerto (also written for Goldscheider: review), there are moments of conversation and interplay with the orchestral brass players (here more trumpets, but the orchestral horns get a look-in, too). An oboe solo (the world-renowned Nicholas Daniel) features in the second movement, and quite low in the instrument’s register. Not a problem here, Daniel delivered it beautifully, and Goldscheider’s horn sang, reciprocally. Goldscheider also triumphed in the passages of (difficult) low hand-stopping. There are some truly lovely harmonies here, and they positively glowed in this account. A finale moves from a quiet clarinet dance tune to a far more riotous conclusion. Again, there was some superlative trumpet playing (Imogen Whitehead and Sarah Campbell) in this movement alongside Goldscheider’s virtuosity. The use of the horn’s high register towards the end seems cruel, from a player’s standpoint, in its timing but works brilliantly in propelling the work towards its bright conclusion.  

The Watkins concerto is certainly listener-friendly and should attain a place in the repertoire. It held its own against the Britten, and that in itself is an achievement. 

Interesting, then, to close with Mozart’s ‘Haffner’ Symphony, performed with upper strings standing and without conductor. The daringly fast Allegro con spirito worked well, as did the lovely harmonic darkenings in the development, an aspect echoed in some of the harmonic activity of the ensuing Andante. This felt like a slow Andante, though, perhaps to contrast with the Menuetto, here more like a Scherzo in tempo. The finale was a real Presto, full of vim and verve. A great, if slightly incongruous way to end: a whole swathe of 20th and 21st-century music, topped by the grace and perfection of the 18th.   

There have been a couple of boxes issued recently - one very pertinent - that include very different performances of the “Haffner“. Firstly, the 15-CD Warner box with perforates by Nikolaus Harnoncourt which includes his punchy performance with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; then, linking in to the Marriner 100 celebrations, Sir Neville Marriner's performance with the Academy of St Martin's-in-the-Fields as part of an 80-CD set (also Warner). The Marriner had me in a fit of nostalgia for those clean textures and accents, but Harnoncourt had me more in his, and Mozart's, grip:

Magnum Opus 2024 Launch

The concert was prefaced by an hour-long event of music, Magnum Opus 2024 Launch,  under the auspices of programme directors Dani Howard and Michael Zev Gordon, Pieces by three young composers (Anibal Vidal, Eden Lonsdale, and Alex Groves) rubbed shoulders with music by Caroline Shaw and Salvatore Sciarrino, performed by members of the Britten Sinfonia. 

I confess it was the Sciarrino that brought me, and his Fauno che sichia a un merlo of 1980 for flute and harp linked nicely to the Weir in that, it too, is inspired by a painting (this time by Böcklin). Thomas Hancox and Tomos Xerri were the performers of this hyper-rarefied piece, a moment of stilled time where every note counts and where registral changes exert maximal impact. Simply phenomenal, both piece and performance. 

The point of the concert, though, was to showcase three young composers. The final work here, Alex Groves’ Yeah Yeeaahh Yeeeaaahhh was an unapologetic dance piece for ensemble and succeeded via its grungy demeanour (some great bass clarinet crescendos from Oliver Pashley. A lot of fun, if a little too long for its materials. 

The young composers on the scheme are described as ‘relatively experienced,’ which brings a dilemma in its wake. One of the pieces remaining is by Caroline Shaw, an established, much recorded and performed composer. Her Valencia was heard in an immaculate performance – really stunning by the Britten Sinfonia players. But this was an immaculate performance of music that is utterly meaningless. So, if her inclusion was to intersperse the young composers with some meat – as one has to assume was the point of the wonderful Sciarrino – why was it indistinguishable in stature, or perhaps lower, than the works around it? The sort of doodling post-Minimalism she embraces, oh so easy on the ear, asks little. Just as well, as offer attention, and there is nothing in return. 

Which leaves two pieces, Anibal Vidal’s Invocación No. 1 to my arcana the Hermit. First, the title. The singular of ‘arcana’ is ‘arcanum’; ‘arcana’ is a plural (in tarot terms, 'Major Arcana’ refers to the cards 0 (zero) – The Fool,  to card XXI (The World) The composer's spoken introduction was a little vague as to whether he actually means invocation in the title (so the act of binging a spirit within oneself, of chaneling) or whether he means evocation (inviting a spirit to share a ritual space with the summoner-magician, but as a separate entity). So, before a note was sounded, there are uneasy and surely unintended dissonances. Scored for string quartet, harp, clarinet/bass clarinet and flute, the piece includes beautiful sounds but is low on compositional personality. Eden Lonsdale offered Aeolian Spring for string quartet, flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, and harp, a piece that is nicely harmonically consistent and whose language exudes a palpable warmth. But it comprises mainly slowly shifting chords that fail, in the final analysis, to enchant. 

The Harnoncourt box is available at Amazon here, the Marriner here.