Britten Sinfonia 3rd March 2012
3 March 2012
By Jem Muharrem
A concert 133 years in the making: Britten Sinfonia at Lunch
Luke Bedford (b.1978) – Three Intermezzi (2012)
César Franck (1822-1890) – Piano Quintet in F minor (1879)
“You have committed adultery in public, Franck…You’ve brought disgrace on us with that obscene depraved work…Adultery, in public, with that vulgar exhibitionist, that filthy harlot.”
These are the words of César Franck’s wife, who had a lifelong dislike of her husband’s piano quintet, taking him to task after the première of the work due to its apparent vulgarity and unbridled emotion. She may have had an ulterior motive: the work was supposedly inspired by Franck’s young pupil, Augusta Holmés, for whom the older composer had a deep infatuation. Composer and pianist, Camille Saint-Saëns, who was more temperate an aesthete, was disgusted with such a display and stormed out of the première during the applause. The work certainly tosses and turns; it is often turbulent to the extreme, going from a gossamer-thread of volume and tenderness to a tub-thumping triumphalism in a matter of bars, only to u-turn again.
While the tabloidy biographical details surrounding its genesis and subsequent reception history may be juicy, there is also artistic and compositional precedence to the quintet’s mien. Franck was influenced by iconoclasts Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt, whose motivic and symphonic integration respectively formed the basis for the extension and modernisation of symphonic music in the late nineteenth century and beyond. Wagner’s development of harmonic and formal exploration, culminating in Tristan and Isolde, in which the harmony doesn’t resolve for up to 5 hours, is arguably the zenith of how far music could go before established rules and accepted traditions began to fall apart at the seams. Liszt, a long-haired, dashing piano maestro similarly stretched boundaries in his intense symphonic poems, doing away traditional forms and overtly integrating mythical, natural, imaginary, historic themes into his work.
Franck, along with many others, was utterly enchanted by these developments, and through them, began to push his own harmonies far, modulating from one key to another in remote, startling fashions. Developing out of Wagner’s ‘leitmotiv’, he composed cyclically, where a prominent melodic idea recurs throughout a piece, in various forms, to forge unity between all of the movements.
The 5 players from the Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Gould and Miranda Dale on violins, Claire Finnimore on viola, Caroline Dearnley on cello, and Huw Watkins on piano, played with a keen intensity and conviction that kept one enthralled for the entire hour. The Britten Sinfonia, trying new ways of presenting their concerts, played in the round, with the players encircled tightly by the audience in the centre of the hangar-like Corn Exchange. You could literally reach out and touch them. It made the experience visceral and engaging in a way that is rare in classical concerts, where you still have to negotiate a no-man’s-land-like gulf, often both literally and figuratively between the audience and musicians. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment have recently taken this a step even further by taking the music of Purcell directly into pubs in London.
Thomas Gould, tall, sinewy, relaxedly commanding, led the group with a democratic authority; engaging and eye-balling his companions while spinning a complex, rich tone across all dynamics. His first entry in the slow movement was like a breath, you could hear the grain of bow horse-hair on the string. Huw Watkins incisive pianism, helped by the lovely Steinway he played upon, was ever integrated with the string quartet, adding as many colours to the timbral pallet as the strings themselves. Watkin’s ever-so-slow beginning to the middle movement created an ethereal, panoramic horizon and a perfect cushion for the music to unfold.
A novel element about this concert was the integration of Luke Bedford’s Three Intermezzi, composed some time in the last 2 months, into the gaps between the three separate movements of the Franck, making a single sequence of music. Given the 133 years in between the two works, I was captivated by the idea of a living composer engaging directly with one who died 88 years before his own birth, after an age of socio-political and artistic change. Bedford said: “Just as in art galleries, where one can sometimes make connections between apparently unrelated artists but whose work is side-by-side, I want to create something similar, but within a concert.”
Bedford’s spare, pregnant use of notes are a natural progression of Franck’s own cyclical, motivic philosophy; like exquisitely-crafted amuses bouche, simultaneously cleansing ones palate in between main courses as well as indomitably complementing the whole. In the first Intermezzo, a minimalist prelude for solo piano, Watkins magically transformed insistent, repeated high notes, returning over and over between evocative flourishes, into the beginning of Franck’s tenero ma con passione. The second, for strings alone, jarred microtones in a repeated rhythmic figure, punctuated by dry pizzicati. After 20 minutes of high romanticism, the ear took some adjusting, but this critic welcomed the challenge for the listener to leave prejudice at the door. The final vignette brought the 5 players together in a suspended stasis of extra-terrestrial long held notes before Miranda Dale on second fiddle began the agitated and tortured beginning of the con fuoco (with fire) last movement. One can’t help hoping that the players might have left a little extra energy for the resplendent coda, which felt a little contained, but after an hour of high romantic drama and quasi-pointillistic intensity, they can be forgiven. This was a fantastic, up-close-and-personal concert; an intriguing integration of the century old with the shiny brand new, shedding light both ways, and challenging the audience to take part in the forging.