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Britten Sinfonia [Photo © Harry Rankin courtesy of Britten Sinfonia]
11 May 2013

Britten Sinfonia with Ian Bostridge

Just in case we were not aware that the evening’s programme was ‘themed’, the Britten Sinfonia designed a visual accompaniment to their musical exploration of night, sleep and dreams.

Britten Sinfonia with Ian Bostridge

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Britten Sinfonia [Photo © Harry Rankin courtesy of Britten Sinfonia]


The Barbican Hall was plunged into darkness as the players edged their way warily across the stage to their desks, trying to avoid potentially hazardous music stands and other stage clutter, while the audience peered and strained to read the programme notes which had irritatingly disappeared from view. With stand lights the only illumination and striking shadows cast by the players’ movements, the Britten Sinfonia began their ruminations on matters nocturnal with the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No.5.

The playing was delicate and precise, the tempo well-judged with subtle use of rubato, and there was a real sense of coherent, confident ensemble playing. This was fortunate, as the Sinfonia was conductor-less and led by their principal violinist, Jacqueline Shave, who — though raised with her desk partner on a platform — must still have been difficult for the other players to discern through the gloom.

Although technically accomplished, the Mahlerian climaxes were a little underwhelming; it’s just not possible to attain the lustrous, penetrating string sound required with such a small number of players. But, there was a clear sense of contour and overall structure, and a haunting ambience was established.

Sadly this mood was quickly dispelled by some unfortunate but obviously necessary house-keeping, as stage was noisily prepared for Henze’s L'heure bleue, a serenade for 16 instruments, which was commissioned by Alte Oper Frankfurt, and premiered in September 2001 by the Ensemble Modern, conducted by Oliver Knussen. Henze described the genesis of the title:

‘Those who live on the shores of the Mediterranean call dusk “the blue hour” because, in summer as in winter, in the evening after the sun has set and before the moon has risen, it suddenly and unexpectedly begins on the western horizon with a kind of opaline blue that slowly darkens in colour.’

Once again, a visual aid was deemed necessary: a discotheque-blue wash swathed the stage, but this was simply a distraction from the Sinfonia’s ravishing evocation of the delicate minutiae of Henze’s impressionistic score. Sensuous colours and rhythms gradually evolved, transformed and mutated as night enveloped day, motifs rising to surface and falling again into the shadows.

The first half closed with three Schubert lieder arranged for the Britten Sinfonia by Detlev Glanert. Ian Bostridge knows and understands these songs so well he must often hear them in his sleep, but here he had to work too hard to balance the vocal line against a frequently overly dense, and rather unvarying, instrumental texture. There simply wasn’t ‘space’ for the text to come through, and Bostridge’s middle and lower register were often swallowed up by the orchestral texture. That said, ‘Waldesnacht’ (Night in the Forest) was fleet of foot, the instrumentalists evocatively capturing the roar of the wind rushing and surging through the trees, the flashes of the flames of sunrise and the ‘eternal murmurings of gentle springs’ — the forces of nature embodying ‘Life’s urge to be free of its fetters/ The struggle of strong, wild impulses’. In ‘Viola’, Bostridge used the repetitions of the theme to create coherence and also imbue the withering violet with ever more pathos and tenderness.

One imagines that the reason for programming Schubert’s posthumously published Notturno for piano trio, which opened the second half, was its title. But, despite continuing the nocturnal theme, the piece added scant musical weight. (Indeed, the programme informed us that sketches suggest the Notturno was originally intended as the slow movement of the B-flat Piano Trio: ‘Why Schubert rejected the movement in favour of the Andante that replaced it is unclear’, we were told, but one might argue, all too understandable.) For this performance, Huw Watkins (piano), Shave and principal cellist, Caroline Dearnley, were seated on the far left of the stage; those audience members in the middle or right of the auditorium must have felt fairly detached from proceedings, especially as the prevailing mood of calm composure did not lend itself to a dramatic, communicative rendition.

Fortunately, Bostridge raised the level of expressivity and musicianship in Britten’s Nocturne for tenor, seven obbligato instrumental soloists and strings. Here Britten’s nuanced scoring allowed the voice, and text, to some across clearly, even in the more dream-like, shaded passages. The individual movements melted into one another as Bostridge conveyed both the rapture and ethereality of night-time worlds. The woodwind soloists were all excellent — the cor anglais was touchingly beautiful in Wilfred Owen’s ‘The Kind Ghosts’, in Keats’ ‘Sleep and Poetry’ clarinet and flute danced an elegant arabesque, and there was some impressively virtuosic bassoon playing. The final movement, a setting of Shakespeare’s ‘When most I wink’ (Sonnet 43) possessed a rhetorical stateliness which was quite troubling, Britten’s setting of the final lines — ‘All days are nights to see till I see thee,/ And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me’ — disturbing in its restless intensity and visceral impact.

The audience delighted in much wonderful singing and fine playing, but we could live without the gimmicks.

Claire Seymour


Mahler ‘Adagietto’ from Symphony No. 5; Henze L'heure bleue; Schubert arr. Detlev Glanert (London premiere) ‘Lied im Grünen’. ‘Viola’, ‘Waldesnacht’; Schubert Notturno in E flat for Piano Trio; Britten Nocturne

Ian Bostridge tenor, Britten Sinfonia; Jacqueline Shave, violin/director, Barbican Centre, London, Saturday 4 May 2013

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