Britten Sinfonia/Alice Coote – review

Wigmore Hall, London

On what would have been the composer's 99th birthday, the Wigmore Hall launched a year-long Britten celebration with a concert by the ensemble named after him. But not with an evening of his music. Instead, the Britten Sinfonia presented a typically illuminating programme that put some of his less familiar works in different contexts, making us think about what we were hearing, but without it feeling cerebral.

Purcell, who fascinated Britten, featured strongly. His Rondeau from Abdelazer was the sonorous opener; there was also Britten's arrangement of his G minor Chacony, and Nico Muhly's version of Job's Curse, the notes Purcell's but the glassy colourings Muhly's own. It was good to hear Stokowski's string version of Dido's Lament, even if it is an over-lacquered 1950s period piece. Moreover, in Tippett's Lament from the Divertimento on Sellinger's Round, a work commissioned by Britten, it sounded as though the spirit of Purcell were being haunted by a strange and beautiful-sounding violin. It whetted the appetite for Tippett's Little Music for Strings, dynamically led by violinist Jacqueline Shave.

In the midst of this came Britten's own Op 29 Prelude and Fugue for strings, a whirling piece scored for 18 soloists; the Sinfonia had fun passing the throwaway theme from player to player, and the walls seemed to resonate when the violins and violas finally all joined together. If that was Britten's lighter side, it was more than counterbalanced by the tragic mezzo-soprano monologue Phaedra, the evening's climax. Alice Coote did its vocal drama full justice while the Sinfonia, conducted by Richard Hetherington, revelled in Britten's dark, obsessive music.

Coote dominated the stage. A moment or two of hamminess crept into her delivery of the Muhly and of Sta nell'Ircana, the last of her three arias from Handel's opera Alcina, which put Britten's cantata Phaedra in an operatic context. Otherwise, though, hers was ripe-toned, big-boned singing of supple expressiveness.

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Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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