Britten Centenary Concert at Wigmore Hall – Britten Sinfonia & Alice Coote

Abdelazar – Rondeau
Purcell, realised Muhly
Let the night perish (Job’s Curse)
Purcell, arranged Stokowski
Dido and Aeneas – Dido’s Lament
Divertimento on Sellinger’s Round – A Lament
Alcina – Mi lusinga il dolce affetto; Verdi prati; Stà nell’Ircana
Prelude and Fugue, Op.29
Purcell, arranged Britten
Chacony in G minor
Little Music for Strings
Phaedra, Op.93

Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)

Britten Sinfonia
Jacqueline Shave (violin & director)
Richard Hetherington [Phaedra]

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 22 November, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Benjamin Britten (1913-76)First out of the blocks ahead of Benjamin Britten’s big anniversary is Wigmore Hall – although it could be argued that to celebrate the composer’s hundred years by launching its Britten Centenary Series on his ninety-ninth birthday – Saint Cecilia’s Day – might just constitute a false start. No red flag need be raised, though, for a beautifully conceived programme that placed Britten’s work within an absorbing and rewarding context. As the prelude to a series of nine further concerts (most of them falling in a five-day period starting on the last day of November) it would be hard to imagine a more appropriate or indeed entertaining concert than this.

The work that closed this evening was, one imagines, the first to be chosen by Alice Coote and the Britten Sinfonia when planning it, for there was a sense that the music that preceded Britten’s late monodrama Phaedra had been selected to complement its dark-hued energies. Modelled on the dramatic cantatas of Handel (most obviously Lucrezia, so memorably recorded by Janet Baker – the very artist for whom Britten composed it), Phaedra shares its emotional heart with Death in Venice, composed two years earlier. For Phaedra, read Aschenbach; for Hippolytus, Tadzio. Richard Hetherington strongly conveyed the arid passion of a score wherein every moment of desire felt by Racine’s heroine is illuminated by self-awareness and trammelled by self-loathing, and where the composer’s choice of dry percussion is a million telling miles from the Gamelan-inspired warmth with which he usually coloured his musical yearnings.

Alice Coote. Photo: imgartists.comAlice Coote’s interpretation was both harrowing and hair-raising, and at the words “it’s nothing not to live”, her despair was palpable. If ever anyone decides to stage Phaedra (as is surely plausible – after all, ENO produced Sibelius’s Luonnotar), this magnificent singer would be its ideal interpreter. Earlier, in Nico Muhly’s compelling realisation of Purcell’s ‘Let the night perish’, she had found a startling vocal colour in the low-lying notation of “the silent chambers of the grave”, while the three arias from Handel’s Alcina highlighted the sweet centre of her range. The first two share a pastoral mood that Coote shaded with subtle, muted variations before letting her hair down (literally so at the da capo) for ‘Stà nell’Ircana’, a showpiece in which the tigress of which she sang appeared to have a firebrand tied to its tail.

Few chamber orchestras can match the Britten Sinfonia for versatility and verve, but to be heard at its best, someone is needed – be it a conductor (Hetherington) or a continuo player (the immaculate Maggie Cole) – to help guarantee the music’s pulse. At moments, and not for the first time, there was a tendency to sluggishness as the inner string parts fell fractionally behind the first violins and cellos, notwithstanding Jacqueline Shave’s stylish direction from the Leader’s desk. This was particularly evident in Britten’s realisation of Purcell’s Chacony and in the movement from Tippett’s Divertimento (although not, unsurprisingly, in the rhythmic ‘Rondeau’ from Purcell’s music for Adbelazar, Britten’s basis for Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra).

The eighteen string-players prescribed by Britten for his Prelude and Fugue (1943) combined with sprightly energy, as they also did for Tippett’s irresistible Little Music with its cheekily witty finale. However, the decision to include Stokowski’s arrangement of ‘Dido’s Lament’ was unfortunate. A homogenised reinterpretation of Purcell’s heartrending aria, it sounded like an off-cut from Grieg’s score for Peer Gynt. With the original aria’s ideal interpreter waiting in the wings between items, disappointment at the choice of transcription was intensified by regret for what might have been.

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