Britten Sinfonia at Lunch at Wigmore Hall – Mozart, Lutosławski Bukoliki, Sally Beamish The King’s Alchemist, Fauré

Sonata in E flat for Piano and Violin, K481 – II: Adagio
Sally Beamish
The King’s Alchemist [Britten Sinfonia & Wigmore Hall commission: world premiere]
Piano Quartet No.2 in G minor, Op.45

Britten Sinfonia soloists [Jacqueline Shave (violin), Clare Finnimore (viola) & Caroline Dearnley (cello)] with Huw Watkins (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 11 December, 2013
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Britten Sinfonia’s ‘at lunch’ series continues to offer opportunities to hear a new composition within the context of imaginatively chosen companions, given in a relaxed environment typical of the ensemble’s all-inclusive approach. This particular season includes concerts in Cambridge and Norwich.

This recital highlighted outgoing centenary composer Witold Lutosławski and a new work from Sally Beamish, but began rather curiously with the slow movement of one of Mozart’s Violin Sonatas, which felt out of place and fragmented. Although Jacqueline Shave and Huw Watkins achieved a satisfactory balance between piano and violin (these Sonatas are marked ‘for piano with violin accompaniment’) there was little satisfaction to derive from this ‘bleeding chunk’.

Such thoughts were banished by Lutosławski’s Bukoliki, a five-minute collection of folksy miniatures for viola and cello that invite parallels with Bartók’s Duos for two violins. Clare Finnimore and Caroline Dearnley enjoyed the unbuttoned melodies, which passed between the instruments, and were notable for their excellent ornamentation and phrasing. Although a relatively early work from the Polish composer, completed in 1952, it was possible to hear signs of his emerging micro-tonality and the lean, sinewy writing for the instruments that gave the pieces extra energy.

The world premiere of Sally Beamish’s string trio The King’s Alchemist followed. Written while the composer was at work on a commemoration of the tragic Battle of Flodden Field, this piece appears to have offered some welcome light relief by telling the story of the alchemist of King James IV. John Damian believed he could fly to France from the top of Stirling Castle, but as he jumped from the battlements to prove his point he landed somewhat abruptly on the ground below, and blamed his rapid descent on the quality of feathers he had chosen to use! Beamish documents his flight of fancy with some brilliantly conceived writing, outlining a theme then four very contrasting variations. The last of these fluttered up into the air ending the piece on a question mark, implying such a flight would be possible in the future with better wings! The King’s Alchemist is a valuable addition to the rather sparse contemporary repertoire for string trio, music full of character, amusement and substance.

Augmenting their number by one further performer, pianist Huw Watkins, the ensemble performed one of Fauré’s very finest chamber works. The G minor Piano Quartet, like its C minor predecessor, is positively bursting with melody, often expressed in the context of inventive harmonic and rhythmic supplications. The first movement, strongly out of the blocks with a powerful unison melody, could have done with a little more assertiveness from the strings towards its end.This was emphatically found in the Scherzo, where Watkins was beyond reproach in his response to the technical challenges, the theme superbly played and brilliantly syncopated. The cut and thrust here was terrific; the string-players biting deep when they needed to, which only enhanced the contrast with the dreamy Adagio and Fauré’s wondrous depiction of church bells drifting across from a neighbouring village on the summer evening breeze. We were in the fields with him, as first Watkins and then the strings played the undulating figure, while Finnimore’s viola melody found just the right level of nostalgia. We then held tight once more as the finale burst in, Watkins leading with authority, the tempo demanding and never flagging, right up to the triumphant and sunlit major-key coda.

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