Wednesday 10 April 2024

Dramatic Britten, athletic Watkins and high-energy Mozart: Britten Sinfonia, Ben Goldscheider and Nicky Spence at Milton Court

Britten: Serenade for tenor, horn & strings - Ben Goldscheider, Nicky Spence, Britten Sinfonia - Milton Court (Photo: Shoel Stadlen)
Britten: Serenade for tenor, horn & strings - Ben Goldscheider, Nicky Spence, Britten Sinfonia - Milton Court (Photo: Shoel Stadlen)

Judith Weir: Heroic Strokes of the Bow, Britten: Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Huw Watkins: Horn Concerto, Mozart: Symphony No. 35 'Haffner'; Nicky Spence, Ben Goldscheider, Britten Sinfonia, Max Baillie, Michael Papadopoulos

An imaginative and appealing programme centred on Ben Goldscheider's peerless horn-playing with Nicky Spence in fine, story-telling form

Undeterred by funding issues thanks to Arts Council England's shortsightedness, Britten Sinfonia returned to the Barbican's Milton Court concert hall on Tuesday 9 April 2024 for two concerts. At 6pm, the ensemble launched its 2024 Magnum Opus development scheme with a concert featuring music by three composers joining the scheme for 2024, Alex Groves, Anibal Vidal and Eden Lonsdale, plus music by Salvatore Sciarrino and Caroline Shaw.

Then at 7.30pm there was an imaginative programme that featured horn player Ben Goldscheider in the world premiere of Huw Watkins' Horn Concerto and Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn and strings with tenor Nicky Spence, plus Judith Weir's Heroic Strokes of the Bow and Mozart's Symphony No. 35 'Haffner'. The Judith Weir and Huw Watkins were conducted by Michael Papadopoulos, whilst the Britten and the Mozart were directed from the violin by Max Baillie who was leading the orchestra.

Huw Watkins: Horn Concerto - Ben Goldscheider, Michael Papadopoulos, Britten Sinfonia - Milton Court (Photo: Shoel Stadlen)
Huw Watkins: Horn Concerto - Ben Goldscheider, Michael Papadopoulos, Britten Sinfonia - Milton Court (Photo: Shoel Stadlen)

Judith Weir's 1992 piece, Heroic Strokes of the Bow is inspired by Paul Klee's 1938 painting Heroische Bogenstriche and in her programme note, Weir explained that her piece was 'a literal response to the title, with its suggestions of excessive physical energy applied to a small piece of wood.' 

The work began with short, vivid gestures from the strings, with the space around the gestures playing an important role. As these gestures assembled into a high energy structure the work became visceral and dramatic. Throughout the piece, even during quieter moments, it was these string gestures that dominated and Weir achieved some striking effects by combining multiple layers of repeating motifs. Conductor Michael Papadopoulos is an alumnus of the Royal Opera House's Jette Parker Young Artist Programme and he joins the conducting staff at Vienna's Volksoper in September. He drew a disciplined, vivid and at times visceral performance from the players despite apparently using only small, precise gestures.

Performed without a conductor, Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn and strings featured tenor Nicky Spence and horn-player Ben Goldscheider centre stage and throughout the work the two men made the piece about their duet, rather than a tenor solo with horn obbligato. We began with Goldscheider, under a solo spotlight for the opening prologue, strongly and beautifully rendered with moments of real fierceness. Nicky Spence's performance prioritised the dramatic rendering of the text, and throughout he used vocal colour and timbre to highlight the words. This was a highly dramatic account of a work usually performed by lyrically, with Spence using text and music to tell a series of stories. Spence does not have a conventional lyric tenor voice, yet his ability to fine his instrument down was remarkable and in some movements, such as Hymn, he was dextrous and nimble in a way that you do not expect Wagner's Siegmund and Saint-Saens' Samson to be.

Pastoral was quite measured, there was something hypnotic about Spence's delivery, quite deliberate with an intensity to the words. Nocturne casually heroic with Goldscheider making the horn calls rather evocative, and the string playing calling to mind the Judith Weir from earlier. Spence was very involved in the story-telling here, timbre and colour playing a great role as well as him releasing the heroic elements in his voice. Elegy was strong and intense, yet sung with great freedom. Dirge was fierce and intent, with Spence venturing into his native Scots for some lines to almost threatening effect, as if he was instructing us. When Goldscheider's horn finally made its entry, this was thrilling too. The result was a performance that was certainly idiosyncratic but most definitely powerful indeed. Hymn was perky and pointed, with Spence unleashing the camp as he moved his voice dextrously, complemented by Goldscheider's dancing horn. Sonnet was poetic and serious, the remarkable, intent performance being all about the words. We ended in darkness, with Goldscheider's atmospheric hall solo again. Throughout, his playing had a beauty, evenness of tone and responsiveness to it that would seem to have made him and ideal partner.

After the interval, the seemingly tireless Ben Goldscheider returned as the soloist in Huw Watkins' Horn Concerto, commissioned by Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Michael Papadopoulos. In three contrasting movements, what was noticeable was how athletic Watkins' writing for the horn was, even in the more lyrical moments. The first movement began with athletic horn over rhythmic orchestral figures, and even in the slower moments the horn writing here was always mobile and often vigorous. Throughout the movement, Goldscheider made the tricky writing seem quite natural, always with lovely tone. For the end of the movement, Watkins whipped up his forces into even greater athleticism, creating something almost orgasmic. The slow movement opened with solo oboe (Nicholas Daniel) over supporting strings, before the horn took over the melody. Lyric and slower, but still the horn solo kept moving and as the movement developed in intensity things become almost violent. A quasi-cadenza led to some magical quieter moments that evaporated into nothing. The sprightly and engaging orchestral opening to the third movement almost dared the soloist, but Goldscheider's horn responded with lyricism. It didn't last, and energy returned with the movement alternating between lyrical and energetic, until things became positively athletic, climaxing in all sense of the word as the movement ended.

Dapper and poised throughout, Ben Goldscheider seemed entirely unphased by the concerto's technical and physical demands, playing with poise and beauty of tone. There was a personal link too, as Goldscheider's mother was playing on the first desk of the second violins and she is a founder member of the orchestra.

We finished with Mozart's 1783, Symphony no. 35 in D major which was a re-write of serenade. The resulting symphony is full of vivid drama and gives no hint at its earlier incarnation. Under Max Baillie's direction the performance very much focused on the strings (with the violins now standing) in a vivid performance that seemed to hark back again to Judith Weirs piece. Despite the chamber forces, this was a very non-HIP, string-led performance featuring lots of visceral, disciplined playing. The symphony's opening gesture was vivid and up-front, with the quieter moments all crisp excitement and the movement became about this contrast between the two. The slow movement was crisply stylised with rich textures and strong tone, whilst the minuet returned us to the contrast between visceral gestures and delicate moments. The finale was full of contrasts too, the quiet and crisp versus the vivid and strong. This was high energy Mozart, played as if their life depended on it, with terrific discipline and unanimity of purpose. Frankly, the high-energy, up-front nature of the performance wasn't quite to my taste (I prefer something a bit more HIP) but you could not help but admire the performance and the musicianship that went into it.

Britten Sinfonia returns to Milton Court on 11 May when they are joined by The Marrian Consort for a programme that mixes Gesualdo, Lusitano and Binchois with Brett Dean and Lisa Illean. Then in June the ensemble's Bach concerto odyssey with Mahan Esfahani continues.

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