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Classical & Jazz magazine

Britten Sinfonia

by Mike Levy

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Mike Levy
localsecrets.com Thursday, 13 Dec 2007
  • I can't believe how lucky we are to have the Britten Sinfonia on our doorstep. This amazing ensemble seems to grow from strength to musical strength drawing on amazing technical virtuosity and a passion for their music.

    A packed West Road came to see their latest offerings: Beethoven's sublime 4th Piano Concerto played by that superstar of the keys, Imogen Cooper. They had also come to enjoy Prokofiev's lovable and cheeky Classical Symphony, but what were they to expect from the first piece: Bach Measures by Harrison Birtwhistle - that stalwart of 20th century British modernism? "I hope it's not too long - I can only take so much of Birtwhistle", said an audience member behind me.

    Britten SinfoniaHe needn't have worried though - as the programme said, this was much more Bach than Birty. Reduced to a spare 14-instrument ensemble for this arrangement of 8 Bach chorales, Birtwhistle has produced miracles and the Britten did the old chaps more than justice. The piece was a revelation - a never-ending source of musical interest as the Bach melodies and harmonies were passed around the small orchestra with meticulous precision. The playing led by the wonderfully watchable Jacqueline Shave had a polished almost translucent quality to it. The Britten sound is always big, bold and full of youthful fizz and they made the Bach sound fresh minted.

    Next on the programme was the Prokofiev. I don't think I have ever heard it sound so exciting - so thoroughly Russian - it is often played as a clever little Haydnesque pastiche, but not here. The tempo, dynamic range and breathless ensemble playing (the Britten plays like a string quartet with its players thoroughly engaged with each other) were thrilling.

    More thrills were to come after the interval. It's a really unusual thing to have the concerto as the sole second half piece, but this was an inspired thought. Beethoven's concerto is a mighty work and Cooper is a magisterial pianist. Like many players in the Britten, she lives the music. It was wonderful to see her swaying in the lilting melodies, sit bolt upright in the triumphant passages and smile broadly in Beethoven's final gallop in the third movement. Cooper and the Britten were warmly cheered - and rightly so. Just when you think they can't get better - damn it, they do.

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Britten Sinfonia Mike Levy