Britten Sinfonia at Lunch – Mark Padmore, Caroline Dearnley, Richard Watkins & Huw Watkins

Richard Rodney Bennett
Tom O’Bedlam’s Song
Élégie (In memory of Dennis Brain)
Gerald Barry
Jabberwocky [world premiere tour]
Daphne; Through Gilded Trellises; Old Sir Faulk
Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain – The Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn, Op.55

Mark Padmore (tenor) with Britten Sinfonia soloists: Caroline Dearnley (cello), Richard Watkins (horn) & Huw Watkins (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 23 January, 2013
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Britten Sinfonia’s “At Lunch” series is consistently inventive with programming, and several thematic threads united here to focus on close friends of Benjamin Britten and the poetry of Edith Sitwell. There was a welcome revival of Richard Rodney Bennett’s Tom O’Bedlam’s Song, a relatively early work for tenor and cello from 1961; it may have surprised the audience with its manic energy and steadfast refusal to conform to a tonal centre or obvious rhythmic meter. Setting the anonymous and eponymous poem (circa 1600), Bennett gives the cello quite a workout. Caroline Dearnley negotiated the tricky paths with impressive poise and Mark Padmore caught the expressive nuances of the text, at turns sombre and weary, the slight flatness of pitch an effective expressive device.

Britten’s close friend Poulenc wrote Élégie the day after learning about the tragically early death of the horn-player Dennis Brain in a car accident. It is a deeply-felt utterance, and goes against ‘type’ somewhat by beginning with each of the 12 conventional musical pitches, stopping just shy of being outright serial. Richard Watkins had its measure, from the brittle march-like passages to the slower, yearning legato that provided the most poignant material. Huw Watkins’s accompaniment was ideally voiced. (These Watkins’s are not related.)

Gerald Barry’s world premiere was next, a setting of Louis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, for tenor, horn and piano. With the same verse given out first in French and then in German, Barry intended the piece to be a move “from light to dark”, with the horn “the boatman who takes you there”. Unfortunately the overriding first impression was somewhat contrived, the German verse harsher in timbre but not noticeably darker. There was humour in the parps and watery sounds from the horn in the French verse, but overall the feeling was of a series of gestures not necessarily uniting to a satisfying whole, despite the high quality of the performance.

Mark Padmore. Photograph: Marco BorggreveWilliam Walton’s settings of Sitwell’s nonsense poems, as previously used in Façade, threw the Barry into even sharper relief, for here there was a subtlety that Padmore enjoyed in the legato singing of ‘Daphne’, where Watkins’s accompanying ripples were a delight. The fuzzy waltz of ‘Through Gilded Trellises’ became ever more defined, while ‘Old Sir Faulk’ was notable for Padmore’s immaculate diction and humorous twists, then Watkins’s quiet but stylish flourish at the end.

Finally the mood turned for a powerful performance of Britten’s Canticle III, setting Edith Sitwell’s wartime poem, Still Falls the Rain, but also commemorating the Australian pianist Noel Mewton-Wood who had committed suicide on 5 December 1953 at age of 31. Premiered at Wigmore Hall nearly sixty years ago, Canticle III is wracked with a deep and lasting grief, and the “Still falls the rain” refrain became ever more potent with each of its subtly altered repetitions, beautifully sung by Padmore. The bare sound of the opening set the scene, and although Watkins’s horn offered a little repose with its more sonorous texture, the starkness of Britten’s response was undiluted and made compelling.

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