Review: Britten Sinfonia/Oliver Knussen, Aldeburgh Festival, Snape, June 23

Oliver Knussen conducts Britten Sinfonia at Aldeburgh Festival

Oliver Knussen conducts Britten Sinfonia at Aldeburgh Festival - Credit: Archant

This was the type of concert that Aldeburgh does well; some challenging music, a living composer with links to the festival and one or two familiar names. The Britten Ensemble was conducted by Oliver Knussen, both having long and distinguished associations with Aldeburgh.

Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music is a world away from his Figaro overture but it made a strong impact with its sombre mood and throaty sounds, the result of scoring that includes three basset horns and a contrabassoon.

Colin Matthews’ associations with the festival include working as an assistant to both Britten and Imogen Holst. He also worked with Deryck Cooke on the unfinished sketches of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony and Cooke’s untimely death in October 1976 occurred as Matthews was composing his early work ‘Night Music’. It is a serious work, with some echoes of Mahler and conductor and players delivered an intense and searching performance. This was followed by the UK premiere of Elliott Carter’s short song cycle ‘A Sunbeam’s Architecture’, set to poems by E E Cummings. Robert Murray sang with ardour and lyricism in a work that was remarkable (unique?) for a composer aged 102.

Tippett’s Concerto for Orchestra was dedicated to Britten for his 50th birthday. The first movement, in particular, is uncompromising with blocks of contrasting material closely juxtaposed but the instrumentalists – often in unusual combinations – played with sharp definition. The strings distinguished themselves in the lyrical passages of the slow movement and the finale had a bustling vigour, which Knussen carefully released before the enigmatic ending.

Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony is all too easily overlooked but this hugely enjoyable performance reminded us of the brio and joie de vivre that infused his music when he was in high spirits. The opening bars of the Allegro were punched out, the rising string figures danced and no-one was in any doubt about the two triple forte climaxes. The metronome-inspired second movement had beautifully articulated wind playing and the minuet seemed more substantial than it often does and with a virtuoso horn display in the trio. The players took the fast tempo of the finale in their stride and their obvious enjoyment of playing the piece was infectious. The bond of mutual respect and affection between them and the distinguished Oliver Knussen was equally clear and an appreciative audience gave everyone an enthusiastic response.

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Gareth Jones

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