Britten at the Proms – Young Apollo & Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge

Camerata Ireland

The second Britten-themed Saturday matinee concert at the Cadogan Hall brought Camerata Ireland to the Proms for the first time.

Listening back to the radio broadcast confirms another programming success, the bravura of Britten’s Young Apollo and the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge framing two more subtle pieces by Lennox Berkeley and Priaulx Rainier (a world premiere) and possibly Shostakovich’s least subtle piece ever! (the Piano Concerto No.1)

First things first, and Barry Douglas threw himself into the solo part of Young Apollo with impressive verve, and there was a good depth to the Camerata Ireland string sound. There were a few minor mistakes in the piano part, the result of going hell for leather in a live performance no doubt, but in a piece that celebrates virtuosity so obviously that is infinitely preferable to holding back – and the right spirit was conveyed.

The Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge also had the right spirit, but here there was a firm reminder of just how difficult this piece is to master technically. The ensemble was wayward at times, especially in the pizzicato unisons but particularly at the start of the Funeral March. Rather unfortunately the first statement of the theme ended closer to the major key rather than the minor, an unfortunate miscalculation, and there were also some tuning lapses.

If that sounds over-critical it shouldn’t detract from some good things about the performance too – there was a nice spirit to the Waltz, a kind of baleful charm, and the Tarantella was reckless in the best possible way. The ending was good, too, with a nice line to the first violins at the end. Overall, though, there were too many slips for this to be a recommendable performance.

Unfortunately the Shostakovich was awkward, too, despite a brilliantly incisive solo part from trumpeter Alison Balsom, whose pianissimo in the second movement was the highlight of the performance. This piece is far from subtle, and can in the right hands be poignant and funny, but here it rather crashed through the first movement without too much humour, the piano fortissimos rather brittle and heavy handed. There was a far greater depth of feeling in the slow movement, but the last was again lacking in wit, crashing through to the end without the jazzy asides that can be so amusing.
It was the more subtle pieces that worked best. Lennox Berkeley’s Serenade for Strings was beautifully and affectionately played, with its light touches and furtive thoughts, a much more elegant piece given a nicely rendered performance and setting a very good case for itself.

A real rarity followed the Shostakovich, Priaulx Rainier’s Movement for Strings. Rainier was active in England in the 1950s, and Jacqueline du Pré gave the first performance of her Cello Concerto. This piece, from 1951, finally got its world premiere, and was shown to be an intriguing and appropriate interlude, with silvery tone and thoughtful stance, but one that built quite substantially to a weighty finish.

You can listen to Barry Douglas and Camerata Ireland performing Young Apollo and the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge on the BBC iPlayer. The concert includes the works by Lennox Berkeley, Shostakovich and Priaulx Rainier.

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