Britten Sinfonia at lunch at Wigmore Hall – Luke Bedford & César Franck

Luke Bedford
3 Intermezzi [Prelude, Quartettsatz, Aria]
interspersed with
Piano Quintet in F minor

Members of Britten Sinfonia [Thomas Gould & Miranda Dale (violins), Clare Finnimore (viola), Caroline Dearnley (cello) & Huw Watkins (piano)]

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 21 March, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

For each of the concerts in its ‘at lunch’ series, the Britten Sinfonia commissions a new work for a world premiere tour. Often this is in close relation to the remainder of the programme, but here Luke Bedford’s Three Intermezzi were designed to make a “super piano quintet” of six movements.

Bedford declares César Franck’s Piano Quintet as one of his favourite pieces of chamber music, and his own writing is clearly borne of the intent to place it in a favourable context – yet linking two very different styles of music is a difficult skill to pull off, for composer and performers alike. The gaps between the fifth and sixth movements – the Third Intermezzo and the finale of the Franck – were especially difficult to pin down. An intriguing subtext of Bedford’s Intermezzi is that they grow in force and intensity, from the first, for piano alone, through the second for string quartet and the third for the quintet. Thus the piano began the work, concentrating on the extremes – Huw Watkins balanced the tolling of the highest C and the lowest A with dense flourishes that suggested Messiaen. This was initially effective but gradually palled, until the quartet-members suddenly began the Franck. At this point the ear was thrown suddenly from relative atonality to as strong an affirmation of F minor that you could wish for, passionately played.

The performance of the Franck had many fine moments, deeply-felt but managing to leave something in reserve for the final, almost-bloodthirsty closing pages. Thomas Gould led the performance with characteristic economy of sound, managing to create a beautiful tone with very little body-movement. The string-players were impressively well-drilled, and with Huw Watkins never-less than responsive in the demanding piano part, the full emotional range of Franck’s often tempestuous writing could be explored.

The second of Bedford’s Intermezzi is perhaps the most effective, responding to the outpouring of the first movement with a slowly-moving meditation that gradually introduces quarter-tones into its light but heady emotional plateau, thereby hanging on the tension between major and minor keys. It was the major that made the greatest impact in the second movement of the Franck, the transition to it a magical, sunlit moment that the musicians felt as one. While the third of the Intermezzi is perhaps the least effective it is also the most integrated at its outer edges, segueing in to the finale almost imperceptibly, giving the impression of withholding drama for Franck’s finale. This was keenly observed, from depths of despair, then surging into F major, the players finding an extra gear to end with a huge statement of affirmation.

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