The week in classical: Britten weekend; Oxford lieder festival review – Britten and Europe on song

Snape Maltings, Suffolk; various venues, Oxford
The composer’s string quartets are brilliantly illuminated by a fab four and guests. And a passing soprano saves the day

“I am absolutely incapable of enjoying Elgar for more than two minutes,” Benjamin Britten said, somewhat gracelessly, in 1931. He was a teenager, the senior English composer a grand old man. Britten never came to love the music, though his disdain mellowed. A sense of glee therefore sharpened anticipation in hearing these two contrarians played side by side in the final concert of this year’s Britten weekend at Snape Maltings, Suffolk.

The focus was on Britten’s string quartets. Given that he only wrote three mature examples, this suggests a small palette but the reverse was true. By setting his chamber music – for other combinations of instruments too – in context, the Doric String Quartet led a spellbinding series of concerts, rich in variety, impeccable in execution. This elite British ensemble, founded two decades ago (the cellist and first violinist met on a music course when they were nine), played the central repertoire but were joined by other quartets, trios and various soloists, the culmination of a week of masterclasses for Britten-Pears Young Artists.

The Thalea Quartet at the Britten weekend.
The Thalea Quartet at the Britten weekend. Photograph: Matt Jolly / Snape Maltings

Connections rather than chronology led the way. The opening concert had a transatlantic theme, with a string quartet movement by Aaron Copland – played with high style by the Thalea Quartet from San Francisco – and Korngold’s Piano Quintet. The European premiere of John Woolrich’s silken, elegantly crafted Badinerie (2017) and some early Britten completed the mood-setting programme. Olivier Stakiewizc, principal oboe of the London Symphony Orchestra, with pianist Alasdair Beatson brought extraordinary drama to the Temporal Variations (1936). In the Three Divertimenti, from the same year, the Dorics prepared us for Britten’s quartets proper: from the light-dark intricacies of No 1 (1941) to the late, shadowy subtleties and sad grandeur of No 3 (1976), written partly in Venice and only premiered after his death.

This last work was illuminatingly presented in a concert of its own, first interspersed with a dramatisation of Henry James’s mysterious short story, The Beast in the Jungle (chillingly portrayed by the actors Kelly Burke and Andrew Wincott), then played again, in the round, unadorned. This inclusion of one of Britten’s most revered writers was a masterstroke.

Olivier Stankiewicz and Alasdair Beatson take flight at Snape Maltings.
Olivier Stankiewicz and Alasdair Beatson take flight at Snape Maltings. Photograph: Matt Jolly/Matt Jolly / Snape Maltings

Bypassing other contenders, poor Elgar included and Vaughan Williams too, Britten rated Henry Purcell (1659-95) “the last important international figure in English music”, often turning to him as inspiration or, in the case of the theme for The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, source. The String Quartet No 2 (1945) was premiered on the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death, the yearning, melancholy last movement “chacony” – variations over a ground bass – a stylistic homage to the earlier master, some of whose fantasias were played alongside at Snape.

Yet far more noticeable in this second quartet are echoes of the sparkling, urgent, briny orchestral writing in Peter Grimes (1945), which Britten had just completed, the great turning point in his career. The Doric Quartet gave a molten performance, each musician – violinists Alex Redington and Jonathan Stone, viola player Hélène Clément (who plays the instrument that once belonged to Britten himself), cellist John Myerscough – strong and independent, pulling together as one: as you’d hope, but don’t always get, from any top quartet ensemble. They have just recorded the complete Britten quartets: it will be an essential purchase.

And so finally to the Elgar Piano Quintet, which finished this mini festival – on paper an intriguing choice, yet fitting, as it turned out. The combustive, aerial energy of all this Britten needed an antidote: Elgar’s sumptuous quintet was ideal, a showpiece alike for string players and pianist (the ever inspiring Alasdair Beatson), sonorous, majestic and congruent where Britten is splintered, restless, volatile. They were certainly musical opposites but this wasn’t our problem. The weekend was over all too soon: some of the best music-making all year, diligently planned. The audience’s sustained, rapt response over three days underlined the quality and vision of this enterprise.

Louise Alder, with Sholto Kynoch at the piano, performing at 2018 Oxford lieder festival.
Louise Alder, with Sholto Kynoch at the piano, performing at 2018 Oxford lieder festival. Photograph: Julian Guidera

The Oxford lieder festival, under pianist and founding artistic director Sholto Kynoch, also has a strong line in programming. This year it celebrated European song. I heard the fast-rising soprano Louise Alder in Strauss, Debussy and Schumann, with Kynoch and horn player Stef van Herten. Alder, winner of the audience prize in Cardiff Singer of the World, was especially expressive in Debussy’s sensuous Ariettes oubliées.

We can all be foiled. An unwell Ailish Tynan had to cancel, on the day, a highly personal recital of Ravel and Judith Weir requiring flute and cello as well as piano. Thinking fast, flautist Adam Walker (an LSO principal, the second this week), cellist Brian O’Kane and pianist James Baillieu expertly performed some unscheduled Poulenc and Messiaen. Then Harriet Burns, Oxford lieder’s Young Artist Platform winner, happened to be in Oxford. and happened to know Weir’s Nuits d’Afrique – probably the only person in the country, as Kynoch pointed out, who had this 2015 song cycle under her belt and ready to go. She sang it terrifically, with heart and humour. Spontaneity won the day.

Star ratings (out of five)
Britten weekend
Oxford lieder festival


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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