Saturday, 12 February 2011

Britten Sinfonia at Dartington Sunday 6 February

It is testimony to the reputation of Dartington as a centre of excellence in the arts that the most prestigious musical ensembles will make a long detour to play at the Great Hall.  A good example of this is the recent visit by Britten Sinonia.  As they approach their twentieth year in operation, the Sinfonia enjoys international recognition and attracts the very best visiting soloists.  Currently they collaborate with the distinguished tenor Mark Padmore who joins them for tours in between his other commitments.
Last Sunday the ensemble were persuaded to come to the Great Hall at Dartington for the very first performance of their new programme, 'English Song', even before performing in their native Cambridge or London.  Not only that, they gave a performance of the 'Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings' by their namesake, Benjamin Britten, exclusively for the Dartington audience.
Publicity for Dartington events is very thorough and the Great Hall was filled to capacity on the afternoon of the Britten Sinfonia Concert.  3pm on a Sunday is often the time for concerts at Dartington, and it has proved popular with listeners.  The afternoon sun flooding through the high leaded glass windows adds to the whole atmosphere.
First to appear was the familiar figure of the leader of Britten Sinfonia, Jacqueline Shave.  Jacqueline is an alumna of the Britten-Pears School of Music at Snape with a passion for chamber music.  She has been the leader of Britten Sinfonia since 2005.
Jacqueline was closely followed by another familiar face: Thomas Gould.  Thomas came to Exeter on Thursday 25 November last year to perform as soloist with the Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra at Exeter Cathedral.  He amazed us all with Beethoven's Violin Concerto, conducted by Exeter University's Director of Music, Marion Wood.
Thomas has been co- leader of the Sinfonia with Jacqueline for two years now.  In 2008 he joined them for Bach's concerto for violin and oboe with the Sinfonia's principal oboist Nicholas Daniel.  He also works with several other orchestras, including the London Symphony Orchestra, and he is the leader of the Aurora Orchestra at the King's Place in London, which is also home of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and now also Tasmin Little.
The concert opened with two contrasting pieces.  Sir Michael Tippett's very modern 'Little Music' from 1946 was followed by the baroque 'Abdelazer' by Henry Purcell from 1695.  Not only were the audience left in no doubt about the the musical abilities of the Sinfonia and its individual musicians, the acoustics of the hall became apparent.  With fourteen violins playing together in that ancient and solid building, not to mention four violas, four 'cellos and two double basses, the sound seemed to infuse the limestone structure itself.   Seeing the friendly co-operation between Jacqueline and Thomas added to the enjoyment of the sound.
As the Sinfonia played the last notes of the rondeau of 'Abdelazer', the oak door behind them opened and in walked their special guest, tenor Mark Padmore, accompanied by horn-player Stephen Bell carrying two horns. One was the familiar French Horn, all slides and valves, and polished to a high sheen.  The other was a rather more disreputable brass instrument, not at all shiny and without the complication of valves.  This was the natural horn.
What we heard next was very different and rather special.  All eyes turned to Stephen as he played the prologue to Benjamin Britten's 'Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings'.  Using the natural horn Stephen played a haunting hunt theme using only harmonics to make a tune.  The highest notes were slightly cracked and slightly out of tune (but only slightly - a credit to Stephen's masterful technique) just like a hunting horn in the field.  Then Mark sang the Serenade in six parts.  Incredibly moving poems by Charles Cotton, Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Blake, Ben Johnson and John Keats, with the fifteenth century 'Like Wake Dirge' included along the way, all set to music by Britten for string orchestra and French Horn.  Each song was more moving than the last.  Mark gave a stunning performance, utterly focussed and filled with emotion - and very sensitively supported by the horn and strings.
As the final song closed - John Keats' 'To Sleep' - with the words, "Turn the key deftly in the oilèd wards, and seal the hushèd casket of my soul", Stephen took his natural horn and made his way purposefully out through the back of the hall.  When Mark had finished his singing he, and the orchestra, turned to the door through which Stephen had left - and waited.  Muffled and distant the sound of the natural horn came again, playing the epilogue.  Bathed in the watery winter sunlight shining through the great windows of the hall, the audience could not place the location of the sound which seemed to come from a great distance - not only in space, but also in time.  An overwhelming experience.
The interval at a Dartington concert is a very special part of the procedings.  Because the concerts are held in the daytime, audience members can stroll in the grounds enjoying the sunshine and taking in the magnificent landscaping and architecture.  Dartington also has its own pub, the White Hart, right next to the Great Hall.  In the 'White Hart' you can have a drink by the open fire.  Most people, however, prefer to stay in the atmospheric confines of the Hall itself where the hospitality team bring flasks for hot tea and coffee.
After the break, as a few souls who had ventured a little far in their exploration of the grounds made their way back into the Hall, the Sinfonia were back to astound them once again.  Their opening piece was very modern, less than 10 years old, and has been revised by the composer in the last year.  The composer, John Woolrich has recently been appointed as Artistic Director of the Dartington International Summer School.
His composition, 'Another Staircase Overture', was inspired by Henry Purcell's baroque piece, the 'Staircase Overture'.  The basic premise is very simple - ascending and descending scales to represent 'staircases' and extracts from Purcell's music to emphasise the baroque theme.  The ingenious ways in which the themes are developed are limited only by the imagination and musical ability of Woolrich and the Britten Sinfonia, which would appear to be almost limitless.  Initially the violins were silent as Jacqueline conducted the 'cellos in their 'scales' - up and up.  What initially seemed simple quickly became astoundingly complicated as the 'upward' theme was developed.  Then they headed down - and down - until it amost seemed to be time for deep organ pipes to sound and Albert de Ruiter to boom out 'Koyaanisqatsi!' in his deep bass voice.  The violins had their part to play too, including long sections played entirely using harmonics.  Beyond the first movement, 'Another Staircase Overture' explored a different idea: long slow notes sustained and passed between the different instruments.  The shift from one note to the next was protracted with each sustained as long as possible.  The sense of smoothness was enhanced by stunning glissando playing.  The notes got shorter and shorter until many were mere brushes or flicks of the strings.  Coordinating these intermittent sounds demanded a lot of studied negotiation between the players.  Although it seemed they must lose there way, no one made a single false move and the end result was fabulous.
As the audience took stock of what they had heard Mark Padmore returned to sing three songs - again originally by Henry Purcell - edited by Sir Michael Tippet and in modern arrangements by John Woolrich.  In a slight change from the advertised programme Mark started with a song based on the words of John Dryden's 'Oedipus' called 'Music for a While' (presumably the inspiration for Margaret Faultless' chamber ensemble of the same name).  Mark's voice and the Sinfonia's music certainly combined to create a perfect baroque sound.  The second song, 'If Music be the Food of Love' had an even more complicated provenance than the first.  Woolrich's string arrangement of Tippet's keyboard version of Purcell's setting of Colonel Henry Heveningham's song based on the soliloquy of Duke Orsino in Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night'!  Regardless of any consideration of the song's antecedents Mark's performance was quite simply gorgeous.  'Sweeter than Roses', which was performed (and fortunately recorded) at Broadclyst by Bethany Partridge at the beginning of November last year, was taken to yet a higher level of sweet complexity.  Almost every word was repeated and drawn out, with a convoluted tune worked into the pronunciation of each word.  Mark gave more and more, but eventually the singing had to come to an end, and the audience were utterly delighted.  One particularly appreciative member of the audience was local baritone Gareth Keene, well known to Phonic FM listeners for his own wonderful live performance on the 'Classical Journey'.
After so much incredible and ingenious music we might have expected something light and undemanding to finish the programme.  Not a bit of it!  The final piece played by the Sinfonia was Sir William Walton's 'Sonata for Strings' completed in 1971.  Once again things seemed straightforward enough to begin with.  Jacqueline and lead violist Clare Finnimore started the ball rolling with a gentle melody.  Then Jacqueline continued and was joined by lead 'cellist Caroline Dearnley.  After that things started to get very complicated, very dynamic with endless sudden changes of direction, and held together by a very rapid three note phrase repeated at intervals by Caroline on the 'cello.  The 'cello part was wildly elaborate, and perfectly executed of course.  The overall effect was hypnotic, and almost stupefying.  So - that was the allegro.  Next - presto!  The tune passed around the stage from instrument to instrument too quickly to follow, with gentle notes and even percussive thumps and thuds to confuse the ear further - mesmerising!  The lento was like one long cry of longing (or was it joy?) softening to an almost imperceptible finish on an infinitely drawn out note.  The final allegro (molto!) was aggressive, with every note hit hard and accurately.  Immense force was applied to the strings of the instruments, especially the 'cellos.  The 'cellists plucked outrageously complicated arpeggios to the accompaniment of judiciously timed single pizzicato notes from the double basses.  The whole affair simply got bigger and bigger and more and more amazing and ended, as it surely had to, with an almighty bang.
No light relief to end this concert.  The audience were virtually overwhelmed by the technical and emotional brilliance of the performance - right up to the final note.  Could there possibly be anything to compare to this in the near future?   There certainly is!  Devon Baroque will be in Exeter, Paignton and Dartington next weekend to play late baroque music from circa 1750 in 'Europe in Transition', which promises to be every bit as spectacular.  They will perform on Friday evening at St James' Church in Exeter, and on Saturday evening at Oldway Mansion in Paignton, before coming to Dartington for another afternoon recital on Sunday.  In addition to that, and something really special to look forward to, Dartington Live Arts Productions have already made all the arrangements for an afternoon concert by The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on Sunday 29 May.

Devon Baroque (Leader Margaret Faultless)
St James' Church Exeter Friday 18 February 7.30pm
Oldway Mansion Paignton Saturday 19 February 7.30pm
Great Hall Dartington Sunday 20 February 3pm
Europe in Transition:
Boccherini: 'Cello Concerto in G
Haydn: Violin Concerto in C
Mozart: String Divertimenti in D and B flat
Boyce: Symphony in F
Tickets £18 (Students £5)
(Exeter Box: 667080
(Paignton Box: 01803 211211
     - The photo on this website was taken in Dartington Great Hall by the way!)
(Dartington Box: 01803 847070

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Totnes Early Music Society
Great Hall Dartington Sunday 29 May 3pm
A Celebration of Handel
(Director: Alison Bury, Soprano: Elin Manahan-Thomas)
Tickets £18 (Students £5)
(Box: 01803 847070


You can hear parts of the Britten Sinfonia concert that they performed on Sunday - as recorded during their performance at Queen Elizabeth Hall on the following Wednesday.   Martin Hanley played out the recording on Radio 3's 'Performance on 3' on Friday evening at 7pm.
His additional information is very interesting, as is the brief extract from an interview with tenor Mark Padmore.  Sadly we cannot hear Britten's 'Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings'.  That is replaced on the programme by Gerald Finzi's 'Dies Natalis'.
This concert is available to hear again (and again) until Friday this week at

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