City of London Festival – Britten Sinfonia at Mansion House [The Four Seasons]

Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione, Op.8 – Le quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons)
Interspersed with:
Action – Illusion – Passion
Stockholm Diary [UK premiere]

Henning Kraggerud (violin)

Britten Sinfonia
Jacqueline Shave (leader)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 2 July, 2009
Venue: Mansion House, London EC4

Revisiting the City of London Festival’s preoccupation this year with music from along the latitude of 60° North, the Britten Sinfonia offered this imaginative programme of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, interspersed with three 20th-century works from Baltic composers.

Henning KraggerudOf late, and possibly because of its overwhelming popularity, it has become more common for record and concert organisers to cast Vivaldi’s Seasons in new and contexts. While Mansion House was almost overwhelmingly baked in summer heat from start to finish, so fresh was the approach of Henning Kraggerud and the Sinfonia that Vivaldi’s changes in mood and temperature could all be keenly felt.

Kraggerud spoke before each ‘Season’, establishing pointers for the audience and conveying his affection for Vivaldi’s characterisation and violin-writing. The violinist’s light humour was most endearing, and this transferred to the music itself – he staggered about on the stage, playing the drunkard when indicated in ‘Autumn’, and in the slow movement of ‘Summer’, when the violinist has a rest, he appeared also to be slumbering lightly.

Technically he was superb, and was helped greatly by the arrangement of the Sinfonia. Save for the cellos and double basses the Britten musicians stood throughout, meaning Kraggerud, standing in the middle, was able to face each section in turn. As a result ensemble was well-nigh-faultless, helped greatly by incisive playing from leader Jacqueline Shave.

The players took great care to emphasise and occasionally exaggerate Vivaldi’s depictions of the weather and the domestic associations he has with each season. This they did through close attention to detail, dynamics, bowing and phrasing, with staccatos crisp and the slow movements weightless. Harpsichordist Maggie Cole, who played superbly throughout, hit the underside of the harpsichord to provide the marching rhythm for the finale of ‘Spring’, while that of ‘Autumn’ was curiously phrased. ‘Winter’, meanwhile, was pure delight, whether in the pizzicato depiction of rain falling on the windows or in Kraggerud’s virtuoso playing. Throughout the four concertos tempos were on the fast side, occasionally threatening clarity of phrasing but always yielding crisp rhythms and bright textures.

The music of Erkki-Sven Tüür bisected ‘Spring’ and ‘Summer’, his three-movement work for strings something of a concerto that brought to mind Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks and Britten’s Simple Symphony. A rhythmically fertile first movement, with syncopated block chords, was superseded emotionally by ‘Illusion’, the most passionate movement of the three growing from a small cell to a strong, treble-heavy climax; the bright textures of ‘Passion’ shimmered like a glassy lake, the chosen motif a Reichian melodic figure.

Rautavaara’s Fiddlers, an early suite for strings in five short movements, was a particularly good choice with which to open the concert’s second half. Its 20th-century-harmonic rusticity aligned nicely with that of ‘Spring’ and ‘Summer’. The Sinfonia, led energetically by Shave, caught the folksy inflections of the melodic writing and introduced a note of poignancy in the lower strings for ‘Mr Jonas Kopsi’ and charmed with the intentionally ‘wrong’ notes of ‘Jumps’.

Stockholm Diary was almost a bridge too far, its sonorities piercing the otherwise forgiving acoustic of the hall, but the performance was once again beyond flaw. Esa-Pekka Salonen wrote the piece in 2004 following a commission from the Stockholm Concert Hall Foundation, and while the overall sweep of the single movement was impressive the feeling remained this may have been better served as a concert opener.

As an encore the players revisited the slow movement of ‘Winter’, completing a concert of outdoor music that gave much pleasure to audience and performers alike, reaffirming the Britten Sinfonia’s reputation as an ensemble with a highly imaginative and spontaneous approach to music-making.

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