Britten-Pears Orchestra / Knussen, Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh

Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh

You might have thought that, working with a student orchestra, conductor Oliver Knussen would have toned down his trademark adventurous programming. But there was no sense of compromise in the all-20th-century line-up he presented with the young players of the Britten-Pears Orchestra, with masterpieces by Berg and Bartok, and music from Henri Dutilleux and Magnus Lindberg.

The BPO's best playing came in their accompaniments to the vocal works: Berg's voluptuous aria Der Wein and Dutilleux's magnificent recent song cycle, Correspondances. Soprano Barbara Hannigan captured the seedy ecstasy of Berg's hymn to the magical effects of wine, above all in the central section, a vision of two intoxicated lovers reaching new heights of passion. But it was her performance of the Dutilleux that really impressed. This delicate, passionate music sets letters by Van Gogh, Rilke, Solzhenitsyn and a poem by Prithwindra Mukherjee. Knussen created a flickering orchestral texture from the BPO players in the first song, dramatising the mystical flames of Mukherjee's poem, and a lonely accordion characterised the sense of loss and sorrow in Solzhenitsyn's letter to Mstislav and Galina Rostropovich. Even more affecting was Van Gogh's letter to his brother Theo, ending with a ferocious orchestral crescendo and Hannigan's stratospheric vocal line.

These were framed by a performance of Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta that hung on by its fingernails to the technical challenges of the piece, and Magnus Lindberg's Gran Duo, for wind ensemble. Ryan Wigglesworth conducted the wind players of the BPO in this elusive music. The sheen of its sonorous surfaces was always beguiling, and the cleverness with which the piece grows from a few musical cells was impressive. But Gran Duo does not sustain its momentum in its 20 minutes, and remains strangely unsatisfying.


Tom Service

The GuardianTramp

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