Britten Sinfonia

Time for a lunchtime post while I eat my sandwich.

Last night I went to a Brighton Festival concert at the Brighton Dome by the Britten Sinfonia, featuring a programme of Mozart, Haydn and Stravinsky. The choice of pieces was made to explore the connections between two great composers of the classical period (Haydn and Mozart) and the Stravinksy’s much later neoclassical compositions. The similarities of structure and performance style are fairly obvious because Stravinsky was striving to make them so, so this point doesn’t need to be laboured although it does provide a good excuse to perform the pieces together. For me the real interest in the concert was partly in the works themselves – some of which I hadn’t heard before – and in their differences rather than their similarities.

The concert opened with Mozart’s Overture to the Opera Idomeneo, an energetic and dramatic work full of tumultuous climaxes that set the tone for the evening. That was followed by an excerpt from Act I Scene 3 of Stravinsky’s Opera The Rake’s Progress. To be honest I generally prefer Stravinsky when he’s not being neoclassical, but I do think The Rake’s Progress is a great opera and probably his greatest neoclassical achievement. It’s also the first time I’ve ever been to a concert in which the conductor, in this case Barbara Hannigan, turned around on stage and started singing or as I might put it more accurately, the first concert at which the star soprano also doubled as conductor. Anyway, whichever way round you think of the performance, she was great: a superb voice and suitably theatrical stage presence.

The first half of the concert closed with Symphony No. 49 in F Minor by Joseph Haydn, nicknamed La Passione. I’m by no means an expert on Haydn’s symphonies – many of them sound much of a muchness to me – but this is definitely an interesting one even if you’re like me and have difficulty telling your Sturm from your Drang. It’s a brooding, tempestuous work with some surprisingly modern characteristics, especially in the sudden changes of key and use of syncopation. My heart did sink when I noticed a harpsichord would be featuring in this work, but it says something for the piece that I enjoyed it as a whole despite the jangly intrusions.

Haydn wrote this while shortly after he had started work at the palace of the Esterhazy family in Austria, which had its own orchestra. An interesting quote from the programme reveals how much he enjoyed the freedom his employer gave hime:

I could make improvements, additions or cuts, and could try out daring effects. I was separated from the rest of the world, with no-one to disturb me or torment me, and so I had to become original.

I think originality in science works in the same way!

Anyway, after a glass of wine in the bar, it was back for Part 2 which opened with another Mozart overture, this time for the Opera La Clemenza di Tito, which was first performed in 1791 (just a few months before the composer’s death) followed by a concert aria Bella mia fiamma, addio (also by Mozart) performed by Barbara Hannigan again. The story goes that Mozart was pressurised into writing the latter piece and extracted his revenge by producing music that is a real challenge to sing. It has subsequently become celebrated test piece for female singers, a test that Hannigan passed with flying colours.

Finally we heard the suite of music composed by Stravinsky for the ballet Pulcinella. This was all new to me and I enjoyed it enormously, not least because of some very fine playing by the brass and woodwinds of the Britten Sinfonia. Although this is clearly neoclassical music, the similarities that struck me were less about the Mozart and Haydn we heard earlier in the concert and more with Benjamin Britten. Whether that was a deliberate choice or not, it provided a very nice ending to the concert for me.

I couldn’t fault the orchestral playing throughout the concert. Some of the music was extremely virtuosic but they were never showy, and I think they got the emotional feel of the pieces just right. The only other thing that struck me was that the orchestra, billed as a chamber orchestra, was much larger than I’d expected, so it produced a fuller sound that imagined beforehand.

3 Responses to “Britten Sinfonia”

  1. Phillip Helbig Says:

    I’m always a bit wary of concerts with “vastly different” types of music (though Stravinsky and Haydn are not that far apart). While I welcome the opportunity to hear something I otherwise probably wouldn’t listen to, I don’t think there was a single time when I was not underwhelmed by the unfamiliar, to say the least. My most recent experience confirmed this. It’s not due to a lack of open-mindedness on my part, since while of course I find only a small fraction of music good, that is true of everything (Sturgeon’s Law), and I listen to a wide variety of stuff, from secular medieval music to Baroque music to English traditional music to rock music (from Abba to Iron Maiden and many places in-between).

    I’m sure that Anton will agree with me that there is something different about much “modern” and “post-modern” art (be it music, painting, drama, or whatever) in that the goal is often not to create something beautiful, or interesting, but rather to deliberately provoke negative reactions while at the same time being clever enough so that people feel constrained to express these positively.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      My last sentence above is demonstrated well by a musical Nat Tate. It helps if you understand German, but even if not, it is worth watching in its entirety.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      Something completely different, of course, is going to a concert where I am unfamiliar with the music but have some reason to believe that I might find it interesting. I do this often, and it often pays off.

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