Britten Sinfonia / Suzuki, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Tuesday 06 May 2008
One sensed a certain puzzlement among the Queen Elizabeth Hall audience after the first item in this Britten Sinfonia concert: the late Stravinsky arrangement of Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor from Book 1 of "The 48" sounded so radical as scarcely to resemble Bach at all.
In fact, the order of the programme had been changed without announcement and what had just been heard was Britten's taut little Sinfonietta Op 1 (1932); a work owing little to Bach – or to Stravinsky, pace the assertion in a programme book riddled with errors. But then, how much of Stravinsky was to be discerned in the Bach arrangement that duly followed?
Hospitalised in 1969, Stravinsky evidently resorted to transcription merely to keep his hand in, and beyond a few characteristic touches of rhythmic emphasis, his version could have been by anyone.
These quibbles aside, this was a hugely enjoyable concert. Any worries that Masaaki Suzuki, renowned for the refinement of his Bach cantata recordings, might lack the punch and drive for more modernist repertoire were already laid to rest by his energetic direction of the Britten. The account of the Overture to Mozart's Don Giovanni that came after the Bach/ Stravinsky was explosive.
This was by way of setting up a link with Stravinsky's not un-Mozartean opera The Rake's Progress (1951): three numbers from Don Giovanni, including "La ci darem la mano" sung by Roderick Williams and "Il mio tesoro" with a heroic Toby Spence, plus Rachel Nicholls in Anne Truelove's Act I scena from the Rake, culminating in the ringing top C that Stravinsky added at the insistence of his librettist W H Auden.
And so to the complete version of Stravinsky's ballet with song Pulcinella (1920), wickedly reworking baroque items of Pergolesi and others, in which the shuffling and balance of different tempi over all is as important as the many detailed naughtinesses of harmony and orchestration. Conductor, singers and players were all fully alive to its teeming ingenuities. What composer today, one reflected ruefully on coming out, could deliver such a feast of invention and gaiety?
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