The orchestra with the closest association to the music of Benjamin Britten is surely the English Chamber Orchestra, so it was good to see them at the BBC Proms, taking charge of the third of four Saturday matinee concerts exploring the music of their first patron, his contemporaries and colleagues.
Britten once conducted (and recorded) the orchestra in the Purcell Chacony (which he himself edited for string orchestra) so this was the ideal start, and it was beautifully played and divided under the watchful eye (and arms) of Paul Watkins.
The program moved on to explore connections with the Aldeburgh Festival, and the next work – Lutosławski’s short song cycle Paroles tissées (Woven words) – was first performed there in 1965. Written for Peter Pears, and setting texts by Jean-François Chabrun, it is an enchanting piece in four ‘tapestries’, with very loose parallels to Britten’s own Quatre Chansons Françaises on occasion. The tenor Ben Johnson sang with admirable control and restraint, especially in the longer, higher notes of the fourth tapestry.
Lutosławski writes masterfully for strings, and the second tapestry cast a spell with its softly enchanting undulations on the harp and more restraint from Johnson, who didn’t force the issue too much. He was however at his most intense in the third song, where the thrumming of the harp and pizzicato strings was especially persuasive.
Twelve years prior to the Lutosławski premiere, Sellinger’s Round was first performed at the Aldeburgh Festival, marking the Queen’s Coronation. This was a group of variations on the Elizabethan theme from composers as diverse as Britten, Tippett, Humphrey Searle, Arthur Oldham, Lennox Berkeley and Walton. Here the Proms commissioned two new variations by John Woolrich and Tansy Davies, inserted just before the finale.
There was a real diversity within these variations, from the intensity of the violin solo and its trills in Tippett’s variation, to Britten’s, which scurried past in a flurry, the busy strings enjoying the energy, to the mysterious Searle variation, with a current of uncertainty. Of the two new examples, Tansy Davies’ was the most immediate, taking the listener into a remote world, but John Woolrich’s had arguably the greater emotional depth. These were both a lot longer than most of the other variations, though, so poor Arthur Oldham’s brief contribution was a miniature in comparison! Walton’s finale felt a lot more conventional after these, too, but was the perfect, affirmative summing up.
The main work of the concert was one of Britten’s best loved masterpieces, the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. It received a wonderful performance. Johnson sang with clarity and great attention to the text, while horn player Richard Watkins played the solo prelude and postlude beautifully, unhurried and completely nailing the tricky high E flat notes near the end of each.
The Pastoral cast its wonderful end of day haze, and the grand Nocturne had real presence, the balance ideal with the horn throughout. Clouds and a sense of growing anger gathered in the Elegy, where Watkins gave everything, slightly running out of puff at the end of his introduction but if anything heightening the intensity. The closing thoughts were striking. The Dirge an unmitigated triumph, perfectly gauged from start to finish, with its thrilling apex in the middle, while the Hymn was crisp and bright, though the strings were much more in the background here. The Sonnet left us with its radiant beauty, before Watkins’ thoughts led us to introspection at the end of the day.
You can listen to Ben Johnson and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Paul Watkins performing the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings through the BBC Proms website. The concert includes the works by Lutoslawski and Purcell, and the collaborative Variations on an Elizabethan Theme (Sellinger’s Round).