Britten at the Proms – Elegy world premiere, Simple Symphony and Lachrymae

Camerata Nordica ((c) Jan Nordström)

For the last of the four Proms Saturday Matinee concerts devoted to the music of Britten and his accomplices, we had a world premiere to enjoy – the first performance of the 14-year old composer’s Elegy for Strings, written in his school holidays in 1927. While great to welcome the Camerata Nordica to the Proms for the first time, it seems a shame not to have given the honour of the world premiere to the English Chamber Orchestra, the ensemble with which Britten had the closest connections. I’m sure there are good reasons why that didn’t happen.

Regardless of this, the Elegy received a full bodied performance. The Britten Thematic Catalogue lists its scoring as for 36 violins (18 first and second), 12 violas and cellos and 8 double basses, but while the Camerata Nordica didn’t quite have those forces at their disposal – they had a more realistic six violins to each part – they carried a beefy sound.

The eight-minute long piece carried the influence of Britten’s teacher Frank Bridge, but also that of Mendelssohn and perhaps the Serenade for Strings of Tchaikovsky. The mood was not elegiac for long, with a warm opening leading to an energetic Allegro, written out with great confidence. The musical language may be a bit derivative and the structure telegraphed, but for a boy of 14 this is quite an achievement – and it is good to have it in the catalogue.

Camerata Nordica followed this with more Britten, the orchestral version of Lachrymae, arranged from its original viola and piano scoring in February 1976. The soloist Catherine Bullock, promoted from the ranks of the ensemble, was commendably honest about her nerves about the occasion, but aside from a couple of tentative entries she played well, and the silvery sonorities generated by her and the ensemble were pleasing. As the tremolos increased towards the climax of Britten’s variations there could have been more force applied, but this was a sensitive and attractive interpretation that treated Dowland’s baleful theme with ultimate respect when it arrived towards the end.

The concert had opened with Simple Symphony, a crowdpleaser with its abundance of melodies, and here given a crisp, incisive account. The ensemble did however labour the second theme of the Playful Pizzicato, the tempo almost halved, which created an odd stalling effect. The Sentimental Sarabande was nice though, with a lilt that emphasised its gently rocking triple time, before the theme returned rather aggressively.

Britten’s music was complemented by Walton and Tippett, both introduced as his ‘friends’, which is perhaps stretching it in the case of Walton, who was more of a respected acquaintance. Conductor Terje Tønnesen talked perceptively about Tippett’s Little Music, saying he sensed ‘some of the same soil’ in the music, before securing a similar depth to that of the Simple Symphony, with good ensemble and that sense of slight harmonic elusiveness that characterises a lot of Tippett’s music. The powerful ‘Vivace’ Finale had impressive drive and direction, with a nice fade out at the end.

The concert ended with Walton’s Sonata for Strings, an arrangement of his String Quartet in A minor. This presents some formidable ensemble challenges, and these were mostly overcome, a few rough edges in the first movement fugue aside. The slightly nervy grace of the opening theme was nicely caught, while the second movement ‘Presto’ was taken at a daring but effective fast tempo – as was the brisk last movement.

These Saturday matinee concerts at the Cadogan Hall, very effectively programmed and enthusiastically presented, have been rewarding in their placement of Britten amongst his contemporaries, particularly those from these shores, providing a reminder not just of Britten’s genius but that his compatriots were often complementary to his own style.

You can listen to Catherine Bullock and Camerata Nordica, conducted by Terje Tønnesen, performing the Elegy, Simple Symphony and Lachrymae through the BBC Proms website. The concert includes the works by Tippett and Walton.

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