Britten Sinfonia & Guy Johnston in Tavener’s The Protecting Veil

Grosse Fuge, Op.133

Divertimento for Strings

The Protecting Veil

Guy Johnston (cello) & Britten Sinfonia

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 15 February, 2024
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

A trio of highly individual personalities: two iconoclasts and one whose folk-influenced music was often invested with a primordial rhythmic power. It was a shared intensity of expression that became the focus for this concert that was variously visceral, playful and other-worldly.

No less other-worldly is Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, the original Finale of his B-flat String Quartet (Opus 130), given a performance of concentrated energy and unstoppable momentum, qualities that arose as much from this beefed-up arrangement by Felix Weingartner (like a triple strength Holsten lager) as the remarkable virtuosity of this conductor-less ensemble. With just the occasional nod from leader Thomas Gould, every rhythmic articulation and dynamic shade had been meticulously prepared. The playing underlined the work’s unrelenting nervous energy, yet the weight of sound did not deny warmth of tone or tenderness.

The performance of Bartók’s Divertimento (commissioned by Paul Sacher for his Basel Chamber Orchestra) amply fulfils the implication of its title, at least in its outer movements. Echoing eighteenth-century concerto form with its myriad solo and tutti exchanges, it keeps performers on their toes. With supple, characterful playing, Britten Sinfonia brought out all the work’s rustic spirit, rhythmic attack and intimate expression, also drawing out the inner tensions of a score conceived in the shadow of war. The night music of the Adagio emerged from the quietest of sounds, its brooding unfolding to unveil powerful unisons and passages of haunting closeness. Nothing disturbing in the playful Finale, arresting for its vitality, and an exquisitely judged pizzicato passage, as was the conclusion’s rollicking tempo.

The authority of that account took a while to transfer to The Protecting Veil, the work that propelled Steven Isserlis to renown following its Proms premiere in 1989. Here, it was Guy Johnston who shaped a glowing meditation, soaring beatifically through the solo part. At 42 minutes it was not as expansive a performance as some interpreters and, initially, not possessing a sense of awesome majesty. But it grew in stature, the music’s mysticism arriving in the extended lament, with time finally suspended, for ‘The Dormition of the Mother of God’, where Johnston’s playing, alongside colleague cellists providing much exotic bitonality, was beyond beautiful, of sublime transcendence. By the end there was no doubt that Johnston and Britten Sinfonia had pulled off a remarkable feat, Tavener’s wish to create a lyrical ikon in sound had been realised.

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