Sunday 12 February 2023

The Golden Road to Samarkand: the Britten Sinfonia brings together two very different musical explorations of the Middle East

Britten Sinfonia, Joseph Tawadros (oud), conducted by Jamie Phillips at Milton Court Concert Hall - (Photo: Britten Sinfonia)
Britten Sinfonia, Joseph Tawadros (oud), conducted by Jamie Phillips at Milton Court Concert Hall - (Photo: Britten Sinfonia)

Joseph Tawadros: ConstellationThree Stages of HindsightConstantinople, Delius: Hassan; Joseph Tawadros, Britten Sinfonia, Britten Sinfonia Voices, Jamie Phillips, Zeb Soanes; Milton Court Concert Hall, Barbican Centre
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders, 10 February 2023

Awe-inspiring oud virtuosity and revived 1920s theatre cliché are uneasy companions in this musical exploration of the Middle East

A cliché, perhaps, but this was very much a concert of two very different halves. At the Barbican Centre's Milton Court on 10 February 2023, Britten Sinfonia and Britten Sinfonia Voices under conductor Jamie Phillips combined music for oud and orchestra with oud player and composer Joseph Tawadros and then performed Frederick Delius' complete incidental music for James Elroy Flecker's play Hassan, with Zeb Soanes as narrator.

The performance began with a set of pieces composed and performed by Australian-Egyptian oud virtuoso Joseph Tawadros. Starting the concert alone on the stage, Tawadros immediately plunged into the technical fireworks for which he is renowned, with incredibly rapid runs, dramatic flourishes of harmonics and complex changing metres abounding. Although rooted in the tradition of oud playing, and using many characteristics commonly found in the repertoire of this ancient instrument, this was clearly a contemporary piece with an outward-looking twenty-first-century aesthetic.

Delius: Hassan - Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Jamie Phillips at Milton Court Concert Hall - (Photo: Britten Sinfonia)
Delius: Hassan - Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Jamie Phillips at Milton Court Concert Hall - (Photo: Britten Sinfonia)

The most substantial piece in this set was Tawadros's new work, Three Stages of Hindsight – an extended three-movement work for oud and chamber orchestra. This instantly made a huge impression on the audience with its contrasting and episodic structure, alternating frenzied complex-metered dance music with sighing contemplative laments and frantic, rhetorical solo passages. The slower middle movement offered a chance to draw breath, and once again featured the expressive and characterful violin playing of leader Thomas Gould, both in duet with Tawadros, and as a soloist in his own right. This collaboration between the two outstanding musicians continued into the energetically driving finale, into which the rest of the orchestra plunged with wild, bacchanalian abandon.

Almost by way of an encore, the first half ended with Constantinople – a driving, rapid and rock-influenced flurry of notes. Once more Tawadros opened with a flamboyant solo, which led directly into a breath-taking passage when Gould's violin matched the flying fingers of Tawadros in a dramatic and extended unison. With passages reminiscent of Bach or Vivaldi set between displays of rock-riff ostinato and Egyptian traditional maqams, this wonderful love letter to the oud concluded with spectacular runs across the whole orchestra and furious "shredding" by Tawadros to bring the piece to a dramatic, rousing ending.

By way of contrast, the second half of the concert took the audience into a very different sonic landscape, with a rarely-played complete performance of Delius's music for James Elroy Flecker's play Hassan, which opened in Germany and London 100 years ago in 1923. With the exception of a few extended movements, the score consists of a series of preludes, scene changes, underscores and fanfares, all of which were beautifully and tastefully executed. The familiar and expressive tones of narrator Zeb Soanes served as our tour guide through this Baghdad as imagined by English gentlemen of the early 20th century (Flecker died in 1915, well before the play's premiere). 

Particular highlights were the plangent and expressive solo contributions from the oboe, cor anglais and bassoon players, but the general feeling was of a succession of pleasant moments, rather than anything which aspired to the sustained intensity of the first half of the programme. 

Ultimately we were treated to well over an hour of indulgently lush playing from world-class musicians, with Jamie Phillips doing his best to make this light-weight music into something more meaningful – a mission which met with some real musical success in the Serenade from Act 1, featuring a meltingly melancholic solo from leader Thomas Gould, and in the two extended pieces which wrapped up this sequence – the evocatively titled Procession of Protracted Death and the sustained, fading repetitions of the closing number, featuring the really well-honed voices of the Britten Sinfonia Voices representing the caravan of pilgrims slowly leaving to take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

There was some truly excellent playing in this second half, with enormous care and attention paid to the musical detail, the interaction between the narrator and the musicians and the expressive potential of the melodic lines. However, despite the efforts of the forces assembled on the stage to try to convince otherwise, it was not hard to see why, with the exception of the Serenade, this music is rarely performed. Alternately light-weight or brief, this is music very much of its time and its place. Some parts are perhaps worth an occasional revival for the sake of curiosity – after all the premiere in 1923 was a huge success – but most of the music doesn't stand close examination on the concert stage, and new productions of the complete play are extremely unlikely, due to the rather problematic way it reflects the racial, cultural and imperial attitudes of its time.

In terms of programming, the bizarre juxtaposition worked much better on paper than it did in practice. Tawadros's driving, exciting and authentic virtuosity, rather than providing an interesting counterpoint to Delius's drawn-out and derivative stage music, instead emphasised its uneven compositional quality. However, the performance of the Britten Sinfonia was uniformly committed, passionate, limpid and near-perfect under the baton of Jamie Phillips, and came very close at times to convincingly pulling off the trick of making this music seem far more than it really was. 

Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders

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