Britten Sinfonia with Ian Bostridge

The Barbican Hall was plunged into darkness as the players edged their way
warily across the stage to their desks, trying to avoid potentially hazardous
music stands and other stage clutter, while the audience peered and strained to
read the programme notes which had irritatingly disappeared from view. With
stand lights the only illumination and striking shadows cast by the players’
movements, the Britten Sinfonia began their ruminations on matters nocturnal
with the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No.5.

The playing was delicate and precise, the tempo well-judged with subtle use
of rubato, and there was a real sense of coherent, confident ensemble
playing. This was fortunate, as the Sinfonia was conductor-less and led by
their principal violinist, Jacqueline Shave, who — though raised with her
desk partner on a platform — must still have been difficult for the other
players to discern through the gloom.

Although technically accomplished, the Mahlerian climaxes were a little
underwhelming; it’s just not possible to attain the lustrous, penetrating
string sound required with such a small number of players. But, there was a
clear sense of contour and overall structure, and a haunting ambience was

Sadly this mood was quickly dispelled by some unfortunate but obviously
necessary house-keeping, as stage was noisily prepared for Henze’s
L’heure bleue, a serenade for 16 instruments, which was commissioned
by Alte Oper Frankfurt, and premiered in September 2001 by the Ensemble Modern,
conducted by Oliver Knussen. Henze described the genesis of the title:

‘Those who live on the shores of the Mediterranean call dusk “the blue
hour” because, in summer as in winter, in the evening after the sun has set
and before the moon has risen, it suddenly and unexpectedly begins on the
western horizon with a kind of opaline blue that slowly darkens in

Once again, a visual aid was deemed necessary: a discotheque-blue wash
swathed the stage, but this was simply a distraction from the Sinfonia’s
ravishing evocation of the delicate minutiae of Henze’s impressionistic
score. Sensuous colours and rhythms gradually evolved, transformed and mutated
as night enveloped day, motifs rising to surface and falling again into the

The first half closed with three Schubert lieder arranged for the Britten
Sinfonia by Detlev Glanert. Ian Bostridge knows and understands these songs so
well he must often hear them in his sleep, but here he had to work too hard to
balance the vocal line against a frequently overly dense, and rather unvarying,
instrumental texture. There simply wasn’t ‘space’ for the text to come
through, and Bostridge’s middle and lower register were often swallowed up by
the orchestral texture. That said, ‘Waldesnacht’ (Night in the Forest) was
fleet of foot, the instrumentalists evocatively capturing the roar of the wind
rushing and surging through the trees, the flashes of the flames of sunrise and
the ‘eternal murmurings of gentle springs’ — the forces of nature
embodying ‘Life’s urge to be free of its fetters/ The struggle of strong,
wild impulses’. In ‘Viola’, Bostridge used the repetitions of the theme
to create coherence and also imbue the withering violet with ever more pathos
and tenderness.

One imagines that the reason for programming Schubert’s posthumously
published Notturno for piano trio, which opened the second half, was
its title. But, despite continuing the nocturnal theme, the piece added scant
musical weight. (Indeed, the programme informed us that sketches suggest the
Notturno was originally intended as the slow movement of the B-flat
Piano Trio: ‘Why Schubert rejected the movement in favour of the Andante that
replaced it is unclear’, we were told, but one might argue, all too
understandable.) For this performance, Huw Watkins (piano), Shave and principal
cellist, Caroline Dearnley, were seated on the far left of the stage; those
audience members in the middle or right of the auditorium must have felt fairly
detached from proceedings, especially as the prevailing mood of calm composure
did not lend itself to a dramatic, communicative rendition.

Fortunately, Bostridge raised the level of expressivity and musicianship in
Britten’s Nocturne for tenor, seven obbligato instrumental
soloists and strings. Here Britten’s nuanced scoring allowed the voice, and
text, to some across clearly, even in the more dream-like, shaded passages. The
individual movements melted into one another as Bostridge conveyed both the
rapture and ethereality of night-time worlds. The woodwind soloists were all
excellent — the cor anglais was touchingly beautiful in Wilfred Owen’s
‘The Kind Ghosts’, in Keats’ ‘Sleep and Poetry’ clarinet and flute
danced an elegant arabesque, and there was some impressively virtuosic bassoon
playing. The final movement, a setting of Shakespeare’s ‘When most I
wink’ (Sonnet 43) possessed a rhetorical stateliness which was quite
troubling, Britten’s setting of the final lines — ‘All days are nights to
see till I see thee,/ And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me’ —
disturbing in its restless intensity and visceral impact.

The audience delighted in much wonderful singing and fine playing, but we
could live without the gimmicks.

Claire Seymour


Mahler ‘Adagietto’ from Symphony No. 5; Henze L’heure bleue;
Schubert arr. Detlev Glanert (London premiere) ‘Lied im Gr¸nen’.
‘Viola’, ‘Waldesnacht’; Schubert Notturno in E flat for Piano Trio;
Britten Nocturne

Ian Bostridge tenor, Britten Sinfonia; Jacqueline Shave, violin/director,
Barbican Centre, London, Saturday 4 May 2013

image_description=Britten Sinfonia [Photo © Harry Rankin courtesy of Britten Sinfonia]
product_title=Britten Sinfonia with Ian Bostridge
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Britten Sinfonia [Photo © Harry Rankin courtesy of Britten Sinfonia]