Britten Sinfonia, Saffron Hall, review: a scintillating 85th birthday celebration for a modern master

John Allison
·2-min read
The Britten Sinfonia - Roger King
The Britten Sinfonia - Roger King

This was a double celebration for the Britten Sinfonia, getting back into the concert hall for the first time since the March lockdown and using the occasion to mark Arvo Pärt’s 85th birthday. Few orchestras were in action yet when the leading Estonian composer passed that milestone last month, but the East Anglia-based ensemble had at least two good, local reasons for not letting the anniversary pass unnoticed: Pärt is a regular pilgrim to Essex (or at least the Orthodox monastery near Tiptree), and the orchestra’s new boss, Meurig Bowen, is a keen champion of the composer’s music.

The constraints of returning to concert life meant nothing big or unusual from Pärt; instead, two of his best-known works, Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten and Tabula Rasa. With good reason, both have become classics, and Tabula Rasa cast its spell again to end the concert.

This double violin concerto (featuring Jacqueline Shave and Miranda Dale as soloists) dates from the time when the composer was establishing his trademark “intinnabulation”, yet for all its hypnotic qualities there is also a lively interplay between instruments, at once simple and rich. A prepared piano (played by Huw Watkins) makes some explosive interventions, especially as momentum builds in the first movement.

Pärt’s memorial to Britten was written in 1976, just as the former firebrand modernist transformed himself into a voice of extreme serenity. A tolling tubular bell is answered by the quiet wailing of strings, and time seems suspended as slowly descending scales give the work its mournful tone.

Clever programming meant that these forces could also be heard in a rarely performed piece by Britten himself for piano and strings: Young Apollo, dating from 1939 and the beginning of Britten’s North American exile but suppressed during the rest of the composer’s lifetime. This short work has a vibrancy all its own, conjured up here in confrontations between the pulsating strings and Huw Watkins’s virtuosic solo flourishes.

The Britten Sinfonia’s home at Saffron Hall already doubles as a school hall and concert venue, but to make it Covid-safe it was further transformed to accommodate audiences in cafe-like seating at individual tables. The orchestra, too, was more spread out than usual, to wonderfully warm effect in Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. In a work where monochromatic texture is all important – the musical equivalent, perhaps, of a woodcut – the players supplied a rare level of definition.

The Britten Sinfonia returns to Saffron Hall on Nov 6. Details: 0845 548 7650; saffronhall.com