Britten Sinfonia at Lunch at Wigmore Hall – Britten, Lutosławski & Tabakova

Phantasy Quartet, Op.2
Dance Preludes
Dobrinka Tabakova
On Colours [world premiere tour]
Sinfonietta, Op.1

Members of Britten Sinfonia [Emer Mcdonough (flute), Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Joy Farrall (clarinet), Sarah Burnett (bassoon), Stephen Bell (horn), Jacqueline Shave & Miranda Dale (violins), Clare Finnimore (viola), Caroline Dearnley (cello) and Stephen Williams (double bass)]

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 5 December, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This was a welcome opportunity to experience the first two published works of Benjamin Britten. Both are remarkably accomplished pieces for a 19-year-old, showing a composer already at ease with writing of economy, flair and expression.

Phantasy Quartet, written for oboist Leon Goossens in 1932, is an attractive, open-air piece to which Nicholas Daniel brought warm lyricism and beautifully phrased melodies, while the strings provided incisive rhythmic support. The arch-like form of the piece was well observed, too, the fragmented and subtly playful phrases of Caroline Dearnley’s cello growing organically to an impressive and deeply-felt climax before returning whence they came. Ending the recital was Sinfonietta, another concise work that packs plenty of incident into its 15 minutes. Led confidently by Jacqueline Shave, Britten Sinfonia enjoyed the back and forth of the melodies in the third movement, in which the composer flexes his contrapuntal muscles, while the central Variations explored the colouring of the lower-register instruments, Stephen Williams’s double bass adding extra depth to the sound. Stephen Bell’s initial horn theme in the first movement could perhaps have been more authoritative, but his ringing tone was a prominent feature of a thoroughly convincing climax to the work.

As is customary in its “At Lunch” series, Britten Sinfonia included a commission, written for the same forces needed for Britten Sinfonietta. The Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova (born 1980) was present for the third performance of On Colours, which plots a musical journey from vivid primary colours to white light. This proved subjective, for the end was arguably as colourful as the beginning, but the piece contained much of interest and appeal, with slowly oscillating melodic cells ringing out in a bold legato from the upper wind instruments, before the bassoon and lower strings offered a response. With modal melodies a prominent feature, Tabakova offered us glimpses of chant-like phrases, but the development of the material was interesting and – appropriately – never less than colourful.

Lutosławski’s Dance Preludes prefaced Tabakova in the composer’s arrangement for ensemble. Written as something of a leave-taking exercise from music referencing his Polish roots, this attractive score burst with melody and, in this transcription, interesting combinations of texture. Particularly incisive were the contributions from Joy Farrall’s clarinet – the instrument for which the Preludes were originally written (with strings) – but also Sarah Burnett’s bassoon, which confidently led off the finale.

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