Review: Britten Centenary Concert, Snape Maltings, November 22

Composer Benjamin Britten at work in his studio at The Red House

Composer Benjamin Britten at work in his studio at The Red House - Credit: Archant

The central event of the Britten Centenary weekend was a concert comprising three of his works alongside a commission for this occasion from Ryan Wigglesworth, one of the leading composers of the younger generation. Not only was the Maltings Hall full but BBC Radio 3’s live transmission will have ensured a large audience around the country.

Wigglesworth’s work, entitled Locke’s Theatre after the seventeenth century composer Matthew Locke, paid tribute to the vigour and vitality of the earlier composer’s theatre music and Wigglesworth showed himself to be a skilful handler of large orchestral forces and to have an astute ear for dynamics and colour. This impressive work was in no way overshadowed by the remainder of the programme.

Britten’s Cantata Academica rather belies its serious title and it is an extrovert and cheerful work, written for the quincentenary of the University of Basle. Soloists, chorus and orchestra all contributed to a rousing and enjoyable performance but it is debatable whether the work will emerge from its relative neglect.

The main work of evening was the Spring Symphony, a choral setting of words on the subject of spring chosen from a range of poets by the composer himself. Several of the poems deal with the harsher aspects of spring and in the opening number - Shine out – Britten writes some of his most dissonant music and poses severe challenges for the singers. The well prepared forces of the Norwich Cathedral Choristers, Choirs of Norwich School and Norwich High School and the BBC Chorus held their nerve and line impeccably and produced colourful and exuberant singing elsewhere. The soloists were excellent, soprano Claire Booth singing with bell-like clarity in Driving Boy and Christine Rice, a late replacement for an indisposed Monica Groop, sombre and searching in Auden’s Out on the lawn. Tenor Robert Murray gave an exquisite rendering of Waters above, accompanied by wonderfully light violins. The finale, in which Britten really does let his performers off the leash was given a virtuoso performance with a wonderful contribution from a cow-horn.

One of Britten’s best known (and best) works is Peter Grimes and it seemed particularly fitting that the Sea Interludes – with the addition of the Passacaglia – were the high point of an already outstanding evening. Oliver Knussen, a musician and conductor held in the highest esteem and steeped in the music drew playing of real intensity from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the wind particularly, so that we were not listening to sea music suitable for any location, but firmly rooted here on the Suffolk coast.

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This unique event was also a concert of exceptional interest and quality and a potent reminder that though Britten has been dead for 37 years he is still very much part of our lives and continues to delight and inspire us.

Gareth Jones

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