The Saturday Matinee concerts at the Proms are very easily overlooked, but they provide some of the best and original programming of the festival in the ideal acoustic of the Cadogan Hall.
This year, Britten’s music is to be examined in four of the five concerts, and this one – given by the Britten Sinfonia under Sian Edwards, looked at the composer and his peers. This was done in the context of one of Britten’s first works written upon his return from America, the Prelude and Fugue, then one of his last of all, the cantata Phaedra, which is receiving a much greater profile this year. Here it was sung by the mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, already singing the role of Phaedra in a rather different context, Rameau’s opera Hippolyte et Aricie at Glyndebourne.
The two Britten pieces bookmarked the concert, which also included one of Lennox Berkeley’s finest but most neglected works, the Four Poems of St Teresa of Avila, the evergreen St Paul’s Suite of Gustav Holst, whose daughter Imogen was one of Britten’s closest friends and confidants, and Tippett’s well-loved Fantasia Concertante on a theme of Corelli.
Listening back to the radio broadcast, this was a very well-received concert, and the first two pieces contrasted rather well, with the abundant tunefulness of the Holst following the rather more austere Prelude and Fugue of Britten.
This is a piece not often performed, perhaps due to the fact it falls in eighteen individual parts – ideal for the Britten Sinfonia of course, because they can all operate as soloists in their own right. This was an incisive performance, wiry in sound but very easy to follow. The opening of the Prelude had a tangy, bittersweet feel to it, and when the spidery figurations of the theme came back at a much softer dynamic there was a distinct chill in the air. As the Fugue started, the roughly hewn lower strings gave a terrific sense of tension, gradually released as the music surged forwards, leading to the sweeping unisons of the mid-tone violins and a convincing finish.
As she talked about Phaedra prior to her performance – surely more than a little off putting for a singer! – Sarah Connolly said she was sure Britten was inspired by Rameau’s own interpretation of her character, describing Britten’s cantata as a ‘dance of mortality’, also influenced by Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Here it was reinforced as a late Britten masterpiece, one of his most dramatic scores, in an edgy and vivid performance. Connolly’s voice was full bodied, with an urgent, almost frenzied orchestral approach that made room for Britten’s unusual and highly effective orchestration. In this respect, harpsichord, timpani and percussion were particularly good, while the violins gave unanimous and piercing commentary. The silence of the audience as the music died away at the end says much for the impact of the performance.
The pieces ‘in context’ were extremely well chosen. The St Paul’s Suite is a lovely piece, notable here for its sprightly profile and crisp ensemble, with a nice folksy feel to the tunes that Sian Edwards ensured was not overdone. The second movement was an especial treat.
The Berkeley settings carried more intense emotional weight, and Sarah Connolly’s tone was just right for these, carrying the text with strength above the incisive responses of the Britten Sinfonia strings. The second poem, Shepherd, shepherd, hark that calling!, was notable for its urgent delivery, while the third, Let mine eyes see Thee was especially poignant, with a melancholic air in the solo string writing.
Sian Edwards gave an intriguing insight into performing the music in the concert, explaining how it was harder to make Tippett ‘work’. Nonetheless the Britten Sinfonia gave a hugely impressive performance of the Fantasia Concertante on a theme of Corelli, showing its full workings but also investing a good deal of Rococo passion in the melodies. It is gratifying to see Tippett get a revival in recent months, and this Proms season should see him re-evaluated as the force in English music that he truly was.
You can listen to mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Sian Edwards, performing Phaedra and the Prelude and Fugue on the BBC iPlayer. The concert includes the works by Gustav Holst, Lennox Berkeley and Sir Michael Tippett.