Britten at the Proms – Sinfonia da Requiem

Thomas Adès
(c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

It is always intriguing to hear one composer conduct another’s music – even more so when the conductor is Thomas Adès and the composer Benjamin Britten.Adès has attracted some publicity lately, for some less than complimentary observations about Britten’s operatic writing in his recent collection of conversations Full of Noises. These do rather have the ring of useful promotion about them, but he is of course perfectly entitled to his opinions, even though that means he struggles with the likes of Billy Budd!

Both composers enjoy a relatively similar trajectory. Like Britten, Adès can be found at the piano, either alone or in the company of a singer or instrumentalist. Like Britten, he can also conduct. Whether he will approach Britten’s incredibly high standards in either discipline remains to be seen, but a performance with him at the helm already guarantees fresh insights and total commitment at the very least.

One work Adès clearly admires is the Sinfonia da Requiem, one of Britten’s finest works for orchestra alone. At the best of times it is a demanding aural and emotional experience, but would have been all the more so in the humidity of the Royal Albert Hall on a hot Proms night.

With Britten’s aim to make this piece as ‘anti-war’ as possible, it was inevitable the Sinfonia da Requiem would contain anger aplenty, and Adès was keen to bring this out early on. His interpretation started with real heft, with a serrated underbelly to the sound courtesy of the lower register brass. The orchestral textures were unremittingly dark and uncompromising from the off, the violin phrases heavily loaded as the music pushed obstinately forwards, with a distinct chill when we occasionally peered into the upper register. At the climax point of the Lacrymosa first movement there was a particularly ominous tread, the percussion with lead in their boots.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra played brilliantly for Adès, nowhere more so than in the virtuosic but very detailed Dies Irae, gathering a white hot intensity through the strings in particular. By contrast the Requiem aeternam eventually found its uneasy solace by way of a convincing resolution. This was hard fought, though, with beautifully played wind solos were offset by questioning violins at the start of the movement. The end became a marginal triumph in the major key, but not without its warnings in the background.

This was a quick performance, a shade over 18’30”, but had a composer’s insight and a conductor’s precision in its execution. It proved a formidable start to a very fulfilling night of music making.

You can listen to the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Adès, performing the Sinfonia da Requiem on the BBC iPlayer. The concert includes Adès’ new piece Totentanz and Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto.

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