Britten Sinfonia at Lunch – MacMillan, Maxwell Davies & Shostakovich

For Max; 25th May 1967; Walfrid, On His Arrival At The Gates Of Paradise; For Sally
Maxwell Davies
Nocturne No.1 [World premiere]
Piano Quintet in G minor, Op.57

Members of Britten Sinfonia [Jacqueline Shave & Miranda Dale (violins), Martin Outram (viola), Caroline Dale (cello), and Huw Watkins (piano)]

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 6 October, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

A new season of the Britten Sinfonia’s ‘at Lunch’ tour continues the successful format of previous concerts, the centrepiece being a newly commissioned piece from a living composer, put into context by the programme around it.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was present to give a talk about Nocturne No.1, a dedication to James MacMillan. The two composers have much in common, not least their love of the Celtic north, and Sir Peter’s piece, scored for piano quartet, begins with a creeping melody on piano that gradually ascended through the registers to high strings. Throughout his career the composer has shown himself equally capable of structures large and small and this three-minute piece, a Nocturne inspired by Chopin, has a dreamy quality, due in part to the composer’s admission of being in a heavily-sedated state following surgery.

Four short pieces by MacMillan gave helpful context, not least For Max, a brief work for piano quintet that brought to mind visions of birds on the wing, achieved through tremolandos and slight portamentos, accompanied by the sonorous resonance of Huw Watkins’s piano-playing. For Sally, the fourth of the group, is dedicated to Sally Beamish, and began with a wiry solo from Martin Outram, which gave way to music exploring the melodic interval of the fifth, falling to depths before picking itself up again.

Watkins was left alone for two football-themed pieces inspired by the composer’s love of Glasgow Celtic. The first, 25th May 1967, was inspired by the club’s European Cup triumph in Lisbon, and Watkins mastered its outburst of cascading notes, a triumphant outpouring. The Ivesian title of the other (Walfrid, On His Arrival At The Gates Of Paradise) is a more reflective piece, though Watkins found the charm of the country-dance with which it finished.

Bringing together the strands of the short pieces was Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, the composer one of MacMillan’s most important influences. The ‘Prelude’ was fast with a rich sound, and felt rushed for a while before it settled, when the musical power was allowed to come through, while the answering ‘Fugue’ carefully picked its way through the counterpoint, controlled and well balanced. In the scherzo Watkins was not as dominant as he might have been initially, though the music thundered to the finish, while the ‘Intermezzo’ became the emotional centre of the performance, initially reflective before growing impressively in stature. When giving way to the finale it took a while for a constant tempo to be established, but once done the feeling of resolution was inescapable, one of Shostakovich’s most positive endings to a work given its full due.

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