Britten Sinfonia at Wigmore Hall – Copland, Shostakovich, Britten & Jay Greenberg

Two Pieces for String Quartet – Elegy and Polka
Reflection for viola and piano
Jay Greenberg
Kandinskiana [co-commissioned by Wigmore Hall & Britten Sinfonia: London premiere]
Three Divertimenti for string quartet

Alasdair Beatson (piano) with Britten Sinfonia soloists: Thomas Gould & Miranda Dale (violins), Clare Finnimore (viola) & Caroline Dearnley (cello)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 13 February, 2013
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Understandably, this year’s Britten Sinfonia ‘at lunch’ series is themed around the music of the composer after whom the ensemble takes its name and inventive programming to put his music in context.

Alasdair Beatson. Photograph: Giorgia BertazziBenjamin Britten and Aaron Copland enjoyed a firm friendship that was cemented in America in the late 1930s. A decade before that Copland was writing experimentally under the encouragement of Nadia Boulanger, and his piano trio Vitebsk falls into that category, so called because it is based on a Jewish folksong. The theme is highly expressive, the composer working it through intriguing combinations of key and mood, including the occasional use of quartertones. This requires rock-solid intonation on the part of the two string-players. Thomas Gould and Caroline Dearnley achieved both this and rhythmic vitality, the jagged dotted-note motifs impeccably delivered. Alasdair Beatson made a forceful contribution.

Shostakovich and Britten became good friends in the 1960s. Britten particularly admired Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The ‘Elegy’ of the Two Pieces was a prototype for one of the opera’s main ideas. Thomas Gould gave a tender rendition before the string quartet explored the sardonic humour of the ‘Polka’, shared with The Age of Gold. Britten himself was next, with a piece by the 17-year-old composer for his first instrument, the viola. Reflection is a quieter aside, a set of thoughts that move from mysterious to questioning. Clare Finnimore’s full tone was ideal at the climactic point, and with Alasdair Beatson she caught the music’s wandering nature. The concert ended with Three Divertimenti, written six years after Reflection and a considerable step forward stylistically. This was an excellent performance, capturing the mischievous humour that lies just below the surface of the ‘March’ and ‘Burlesque’, while charming with the wistful Waltz.

Only Jay Greenberg (born 1991) and his Kandinskiana had no apparent link to the programme. Scored for piano quintet, it is initially evocative, the string-players using the wood of their instruments to create lightly percussive effects, part of Greenberg’s desire to “realise the process of creating a Kandinsky painting”. There was an explosion of colour in the note-clusters late on, but overall the piece felt like a series of gestures none allowed to fully express themselves. The performance was excellent, with musicians conducting where necessary.

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