Britten Sinfonia : The fourth Coffee Concert 2012 – 2013, a personal view

The Dome took a risk with this one. Just to get things clear, the Dome chooses and books the players, Strings Attached looks after the audience, and keeps the Dome informed about what that audience wants. That Strings Attached audience, descended as it is from the Old Market Coffee Concert audience, is used, in the main, to string quartets from the 18th and 19th century. Here, on 20th January 2013, they got 20th and 21st century pieces for tenor, horn and piano, the only strings being a cello in the opening piece.

It worked, judging from the buzz in the interval and at the end. It worked because the performers were world class, they related to their audience as though they were comfortable with us and interested in us, and the music was sometimes great and always interesting. Also there was a satisfying logic to the pieces; connections were made between the Richard Rodney Bennett, Britten and Gerald Barry pieces stylistically, between the Poulenc and the Britten via Denis Brain the horn player, between the Walton and the Britten, the words of both written by Edith Sitwell.

The programme began with Richard Rodney Bennett’s Tom O’Bedlam, new I imagine, like much of this programme, to the audience. It’s a powerful setting of a poem from the 17th century, for tenor and cello. It’s stark, uncomfortable music in which the cello and voice intertwine, react with each other, and sometimes go off on their own. Committed performances from Mark Padmore and Caroline Dearnley brought it to life, the cold image of the mad beggar enhanced by the branches of the trees in the Pavilion Gardens, heavy with snow, seen through the Corn Exchange windows behind the performers. An extra excitement was that Caroline played, for the first time, from music on the screen of her iPad rather than from a printed score. There was a practical reason for this: the music doesn’t stop for her to turn the page and there are thirteen pages. However, to the delight of the technophobes in the audience, the foot pedal that should have moved the image on the screen failed, and Caroline had to have the screen changed by an assistant manually.

Poulenc’s Elégie for horn and piano is an easier piece to get a handle on but it’s not the languorous writing of his songs. It’s strangely declamatory, finally resolving into an ending that is quiet and peaceful, the horn part played by Richard Watkins with just about the quietest playing I have ever heard from the horn.

The world premiere of Gerald Barry’s Jabberwocky followed. The words are from the Lewis Carroll poem but sung in French then in German. It was performed with utter conviction by Mark Padmore and Huw Watkins on piano. The performance stays with me still but I’m not sure the music would alone.

After the interval William Walton’s three songs were fun – Mark Padmore convincing again in English, Spanish and American modes. But then everything changed. The opening of Britten’s Canticle III Still Falls the Rain is enough to stop the heart: a plainsong-like refrain moving slowly in semitones and repeated with every verse as Edith Sitwell uses the Crucifixion to describe the fate of mankind. And then in the middle of music of unbearable intensity, the tenor speaks these words from Marlowe’s Dr Faustus:

“ O Ile leap up to my God
Who pulles me doune
See, see where Christ’s blood streames in the firmament”.

It was worth struggling through the snow for this piece alone; worth it for those three spoken lines.

Andrew Polmear